Amazon’s Review Policy Explained

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Most indie authors have encountered, either personally or vicariously, some of Amazon’s gestapo review policies. When reviews are so important to a book’s ranking, it’s no wonder that restrictions are frustrating and often confusing. More than anything, I simply wondered what was behind it? Clearly Amazon’s goal is to sell product, so why would they institute rules that compromise sales? It seems that “fake reviews” should be recognizable to any intelligent person and be discounted with an eye-roll as opposed to throwing out the baby with the bath water and tossing legitimate ones.

Well, I attended a free webinar the other day entitled “3 Catastrophic Marketing Landmines That Can Get You Into Serious Hot Water With The FTC Today: And What You Need To Know… ” that provided a classic “Aha!” moment that explained what’s more than likely behind Amazon’s review policy.  If you hurry, you can listen to it until June 4, 2017 here. [NOTE: If you should join their program, note that I am NOT an affiliate and will NOT receive any compensation. Rather, I’m sharing it because I feel it’s information that others can benefit from as I did.]

So what’s the deal? Why is Amazon being so ornery about reviews? Not surprisingly, it’s none other than our friend (?) the US Government, more specifically the Federal Trade Commission, a.k.a. FTC. Like the IRS, this is another government agency you don’t want to tangle with. They have strict rules regarding deceptive testimonials, which includes whether there was any material compensation involved; in other words, a paid affiliate needs to be disclosed, with what constitutes payment a somewhat grey area. Deceptive testimonials, another no-no, can obviously include reviews from friends and associates who may claim something is the best thing since the cell phone when in reality it’s not. We’ve all read books from time to time that had multiple 5-star ratings that were clearly undeserved. So, being compensated for a review in some manner or an inflated testimonial that is unlikely to represent the opinion of others are to be avoided.

In other words, the bottom line is Amazon is covering their butt against consumer complaints to the FTC, which is the prudent thing for a business to do. If you have a website where you offer products to consumers, there are various alligators in the water regarding disclosure with which you, also, should be aware. As with any government regulation, ignorance of the law is no excuse and failure to comply can get you into serious trouble. All authors need to be aware of such regulations, especially if they have a website where they have affiliate links or sell their own books.

But my main point here is that Amazon is not doing this to make our lives difficult, but to protect their interests and comply with government regulations. It’s no wonder they ignore our complaints since we certainly don’t wield the punch of Uncle Sam.

That said, I can’t help but wonder what the FTC would do if authors complained about the way Amazon handles trolls?  Undoubtedly it’s covered in our contract to their benefit, but as our sales agent, if they allow trolls to jeopardize our sales, it would make for an interesting conversation….

The Best of Times and the Worst of Times

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Forgive me for borrowing the title from Dickens. As you may have guessed, the context, however, is entirely different. I’m talking about publishing.

Truly it’s the best of times for those of us who burned out trying to find a commercial publisher. I remember how excited I was when I found out you could publish your book on Kindle and even more excited when Create Space came along so you could actually hold your book in your hands. Long ago I discovered that, like so many other parts of life, finding an agent, much less a publisher, was quite political. I’m sure you’ve encountered books that were commercially published that sucked worse than a day-old calf. Just the memory of a few I remember is enough to make me shudder. So bringing the DIY world to self-publishing without the thousands of dollars required for a vanity press was like a gift from Heaven.

However, there was definitely a downside. First of all, there’s the competition. In the days when books were only available in, well, bookstores, there was limited shelf space. Thus, most books had a shelf life of about six weeks with a print run of a few thousand copies. Then they were remaindered, i.e. sent back to the publisher, sold to the highest bidder or perhaps the covers ripped off and tossed. Bookstores could only hold so many books and your chance at fame were thus limited.

Now, thanks to e-books as well as print on demand (POD) publishing, books are available ad infinitum, both in time and number. This is a good thing because it gives you all the time in the world to hawk your book. It’s a bad thing, because now there are literally millions of books competing with yours.

Of course when a market is saturated, that also drives down the price. It’s never been easy to make a living as an author and it’s even more difficult now. Readers have come to expect their books to be free, maybe 99c for an author they love. Even if they pay more, especially if it’s someone who prefers print books, selling a print book via Create Space’s “expanded distribution” usually earns you something in the neighborhood of $0.18.

Yeah.

And if the book is used, the author won’t even get that. Bear that in mind the next time you buy one.

As if that’s not bad enough, it costs money to be an author. Having a computer and word processor software is assumed in today’s world. But unless you can do everything yourself, there’s a matter of line editors, content editors, copy editors, book interior designers, and cover designers, perhaps even voice actors. Then there’s the expense of maintaining a website and a presence on social media, which seem to be spawning new platforms like mushrooms after a spring rain. There are book promoters, book fairs, and marketing classes, plus, to maintain your sanity, you may need to hire a personal assistant to keep up with it all. The bad news is that everyone makes money but you. The good news is that it’s a good tax deduction. Just don’t ever make the mistake by referring to it as a hobby with the IRS.

blackboard_writer2So why on Earth do we write? Because we have to. It’s something inside us that needs to come out. It’s that creative spark of self-expression that makes us feel alive. If we can share it with others, all the better. But the fact is, it’s something we’re born with and can’t deny.

Yes, it’s the best of times and the worst of times.There’s a whole lot to bitch about. But when all is said and done, being able to hold your book in your hand is priceless. The only thing better is finding a five-star review.

Some Benefits of Backstories

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As an author you’re probably already familiar with backstories.  These may reside nowhere but inside your head, but in order to develop authentic characters and plots, they need to exist.  Even if a character has amnesia, such as Jane Doe in the popular TV program Blindspot, he or she needs to have a past.  Life experiences, even for fictitious characters, are what make people interesting, provide motivation and bring out their personality.  As an author, if you don’t know this about your character, it’s going to make it more difficult to tell his story.  Dialog and action may be stilted or artificial without knowing what makes him tick.

If you’re having difficulty getting into a character, talk to him or her to find out more about their background.  You might be surprised what you’ll discover.  Character interviews are common these days in blogs, which further demonstrate this principle.  Talking about a character with other writers or your beta readers can bring out all sorts of great ideas as well.  If you get stuck, try this out.  I can have as much fun brainstorming with other writers about their current WIP as I can with my own, whether it involves character motivation or plot development.  Backstories are also great practice for new authors not only to develop their cast but their writing style as well.

It’s worth noting, however, that you shouldn’t confuse your readers by giving unimportant characters a name.  If you do, they’ll wonder later what happened to so and so.  The general rule is that any character who doesn’t contribute to the plot doesn’t need to be there, anyway, except in the case of certain group situations, like extras in a movie.  If they’re important enough to deserve a name, then they should have a backstory, no matter how simple.

For main characters, these backstories tend to come out in the course of the story to a greater or lesser degree, but not always so much for minor characters.  However, if you find a detailed backstory developing for a minor character, chances are he/she/it has something interesting to say.  You’ve undoubtedly noticed how various sit-coms have had spinoffs over the years, typically when a minor character becomes interesting enough to have his or her own program.  One that comes to mind is Frasier, which evolved from Cheers.  Another example would be the ewok stories that evolved from Star Wars.

It used to be that backstories were useful to the writer, but often sat in a file that never saw the light of day.  Now that ebooks are so popular and relatively easy to produce, they can serve a useful purpose for keeping readers and fans engaged, either as your full-length novel develops, between books in a series or even to add additional depth to a story that’s already out there.  Who knows?  It could evolve into another full-length story as you dive into what makes a character tick.  This is often how series and trilogies are born, when there’s a lot more to tell.  Fans who become attached to a character love to hear more about them.  And these are not always limited to the main ones.  How many movies have you seen where one of the supporting actors grabs your attention?  You never know who another person will connect with or for what reason.

Since this background information is often already written up, or could be relatively easily if it’s parked in your brain, it’s worth it to do some editing and get it into ebook form.  Print form works, too, since these books are usually short and make great giveaways or ultra-inexpensive samples.  As expected, the cover is the most expensive element of a book, so they might not be as cheap as you’d expect, but usually your cost will be around $2.  For example, my Star Trails Compendium, which is 135 pages long, costs me $2.48 while The Sapphiran Agenda is only 29 pages but $2.15.

Backstories work well for giveaways and teasers, both before and after a book is released.  My Star Trails Tetralogy series has two, which are free on Smashwords and its outlets and 99c on Amazon.  The Star Trails Compendium comprises all the terms, definitions and cultural background information for the series while The Sapphiran Agenda is a true backstory for a minor character, Thyron, who’s a flora peda telepathis, i.e. telepathic walking plant.  Many readers noted he was their favorite, though at least one found him annoying, demonstrating how you never know how they’ll be accepted.  Thyron has at least one more story to tell which I hope to have out soon.

Put backstories to work for you to gain new fans, retain old ones, and provide short samples of your writing style.  Short reads are popular these days as well, even having their own category on Amazon, which further increases their appeal and potential for finding new readers.  Whether you’re in the middle of a lengthy novel, between books or perhaps stuck with a case of writer’s block, these gems can be fun and easy to write and provide a means to maintain contact with your existing fan base.  If you need ideas or examples, feel free (literally and figuratively) to check mine out at the links below.

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The Star Trails Compendium

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The Sapphiran Agenda

Top image copyright 123RF

 

6 Tips for Serial Writers

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Or maybe, for clarity’s sake, I should say “Writers of Serials”. A “serial writer” could simply be someone who can’t stop writing, regardless of what it is, which fits more authors than I could begin to name. The folks I’m addressing are those of us who love our characters so much and get so enmeshed in our plot that it goes on and on, far beyond the binding of a single book. I admit to this freely, since my supposed single novel quickly evolved into at least a trilogy and ultimately a four volume tetralogy. An argument could be made that this is sheer laziness or ego, but for me there was just so much more story that needed to be told.

Just for the record, there’s a difference between a serial and a series. A serial is one where the basic plot line and story continues, often preceded by a cliffhanger in the previous book. Trilogies are often a serial, as is my Star Trails Tetralogy. Think of them as an epic story told in installments.

A series, on the other hand, may include the same characters, but not necessarily. Each will depict an independent plot or story line, such as the Nancy Drew series. Some series may even be thematic in nature, revolving around similar plots such as romance, romantic suspense, mystery or just about any other imaginable genre, but featuring an entirely different cast.

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Now that we have that out of the way, let’s talk about writing a serial.

If your novel refuses to end because more plot twists, back stories and characters bombard you relentlessly, then you may as well recognize that you’re destined to be a serial writer. Be warned, however, that once you indulge yourself in that manner, you’ll probably never be able to produce a stand-alone story again. This is certainly not a bad thing, but there are a few things that are useful to know coming right out of the gate with that first book. So here are some tips I’ve developed from my own writing as well as numerous others I’ve read.

1. Don’t assume your readers are already familiar with your plot and characters. As an author it’s easy to just plunge forward with your story line, but there’s no guarantee that all readers will be familiar with what has transpired so far. Even if they read the previous book or books, time and numerous other stories may have separated them from yours, so a few quick reminders are always in order. This includes key plot elements leading up to the current problem as well as details such as what your characters look like. You may have them permanently ingrained in your head, but more than likely your readers won’t. In fact, it never hurts to have an occasional reminder throughout any book regarding their appearance. It’s always helpful to give them a certain habit you can throw in here and there that triggers an image as well as makes them more real.

Past events don’t require a long, boring summary. They can usually be worked in easily through character dialog such as a “Remember when?” conversation or short reference to something that occurred in a previous volume. These references can be humorous as well. Readers who remember that particular scene will enjoy the “inside joke” and new readers will feel as if they missed something good and be enticed to go back and read it. It adds depth and life to the characters and their relationships. How often do you reminisce with friends or relatives about important events? Allow your characters the same experience.

If you have an extremely complex plot it can be more difficult to bring new readers up to speed. I have jumped into a serial midstream before and had no problem figuring out what was happening while in others I was entirely lost and never made it through the book. In rare cases, if I was truly hooked, I’d go back and read the initial volumes, but I usually just quit reading and moved on to something else. Others, I read out of order but know I would have enjoyed it more in sequence.

This problem is particularly applicable to fantasy and science fiction stories where a new world or culture is involved. The more complicated the story’s context, the more important it is to fill in the reader and continue to remind them. Again, recaps don’t have to be long and distracting, only sufficient to make what’s going on make sense. Balance is required, of course. Too many reminders or redundancy are frustrating, too. This is where it’s great to have input from beta readers, including some who have not read the initial volumes.

2. “First the worst, second the same, last the best of any game.” I remember my kids chanting that little ditty as rebuttal when they would come in last in a competition, but ironically it can apply to serial writers. All skills improve with practice, which certainly includes everything we put into words, whether it’s another book, a blog, an article, website content or even something as dry as technical writing. The craft of assembling words together continually evolves. Thus, there’s a good chance that subsequent books will demonstrate your improved skills.

This is all well and good, but doesn’t mean that your first one shouldn’t be the best possible product. If it’s not, readers are less likely to continue on with the story. If you’re a new writer, this requires extra effort to make sure that first tome is in the best possible shape. This is likely to involve some investment on your part in a good editor as well as a professional book interior and cover designer. In some cases, you may even want to go back to that first one at some point and refine it, using your improved skills. I will be doing that for the first book in my tetralogy which has garnered a couple bad reviews due to missing commas. I felt a whole lot better about this when a friend and fellow author admitted she was also re-editing volume one of her series.

3. Avoid over-populating your story with extraneous characters. If they don’t move the plot along, then they don’t belong and usually shouldn’t be named. Too many people milling around in a book can be as confusing as going to a party where you don’t know anyone and are trying to learn plus remember everyone’s name much less what they do for a living. Red herrings may require a few people who pass quietly into oblivion, which is an entirely different situation. If you’re going to have a cast of thousands, then at least introduce them gradually and give the reader a chance to connect with each one individually before bringing in too many others. Once they’re all established, then it’s okay to have a massive group scene or discussion.

Which reminds me of another thing to avoid, names that sound or appear too similar, such as starting with the same letter of the alphabet and/or having the same number of letters. You want names that are distinctly different as well as fit the character, which is a subject in and of itself. Being visually distinct applies particularly to making life easier for speed readers. For example, don’t have one person named Horace and another named Hector. Names that are unique also make your character more memorable.

pageheart4. Don’t forsake minor characters from the previous work. Many times the hero or heroine is not the one a reader favors most. Thus, they may be disappointed or downright angry when a subsequent volume excludes him, her or even it. The character may have less emphasis that in the previous episode, but at least allow him/her/it a cameo appearance from time to time or explain their absence. For example, consider R2D2 and C3PO from Star Wars. They were part of the team and you expected them to hang around. In some cases, minor characters can provide a bridge to new major characters as well.

5. Cliffhangers: Pros and Cons. The ideal cliffhanger will make your reader want desperately to know what happens next and thus immediately buy the next book. On the other hand, they might be annoyed, feel cheated, and move on to more self-contained novels. Readers’ tastes vary tremendously, not only with regard to genre, but length. Some may be too ADHD to make it through a full length novel much less trilogy while others thrive on something they can get their teeth into. If you’re writing a serial, then you can always hope for fans like those who loved Harry Potter so much they’d stand in long lines at book stores awaiting the release of the next episode.

A cliffhanger that leaves one or more characters in dire straits with no obvious way out can be particularly annoying, especially if the sequel isn’t written yet! If the reader has to wait for months or longer for the sequel, you run a huge risk of losing them along the way. No matter how much they loved your story, once that time has passed there’s a good chance they will have all but forgotten it. Of course this is why you want to engage your readers, get them on your mailing list, tease them with excerpts on your Facebook page and so forth. If you have a great following, this may not be that much of a problem, but if you’re a new author it could be.

angry_girl_reading_bookHowever, for reader satisfaction, it’s often a good idea to at least provide some semblance of closure for the book at hand while leaving enough unanswered questions to entice them to continue on. Don’t drop them like a bad habit in the middle of an adrenaline rush. Put yourself in the reader’s place for a moment and consider how you react to such an ending. I think doing so may be fun for the author but painful for the reader. Maybe evoking an emotional reaction will make your book more memorable, but if it’s anger they may not come back. I always rank a book that can make me laugh or cry higher than those that don’t elicit a reaction. Emotional reactions stay in your heart (literally) as opposed to your head and thus will make your story more memorable, but it’s better to do this via lovable characters than irritating endings. I can still remember books I read decades ago that made me cry or laugh.

I’ve read the first volume of numerous stories, yet never made it to the sequel for several. Sometimes it’s simply a matter of time. As an author I do a lot of reading, editing and beta-reading for my peers which means I often don’t have the time to read something just because I want to know what happens. I have time for very little of what I would call “recreational reading.” How much I care about the characters is a big driver on whether I make it back for a sequel, but I have to admit if the plot is intriguing enough, I’ll want to know what happens even if I’m not thoroughly attached to the people involved. Another factor is length. If the episodes are more in the novella range as opposed to making “Gone With the Wind” look like a beach read, I’m more likely to make the time to read on.

6. When your serial is complete, consider making it a box set. Once my tetralogy was complete, I made it into a box set for both the print and electronic versions. This can have grand appeal to those who favor lengthy stories and of course minimizes the cliffhanger dilemma. It also gives you another opportunity for a big release party! I’ve been more than pleased with how well Star Trails has done as a set compared to the individual books.

In conclusion, I must say there’s tremendous satisfaction in writing a serial. Your characters continue to flesh out and assume a life of their own, often to the point where they virtually write the story for you. Mine got themselves into a variety of fixes, many of which I had no idea how they could possibly be resolved, until my characters themselves came up with the answers on their own. I must say that wrapping it all up was bitter-sweet, yet satisfying.

blackboard_writer2If you’re headed in the serial direction, or even just starting your first story, I highly recommend being a beta reader for other authors, which has taught me so much. We’re often blind to our own weaknesses until they glare at us from another’s work. I can’t begin to count how many times something has jumped out at me in someone else’s story, only to realize that I was guilty of the same faux pas.

Authors tend to be voracious readers, which is highly advised since it provides a wealth of information, if you but tune into it. This may take some of the enjoyment out of reading, but the writing lessons are worth it. One of my favorite sayings, No life is never wasted, you can always serve as a bad example, also applies to numerous works of fiction we’ve all encountered, especially in the Indie world where competent editing may be lacking. Needless to say, you don’t want your baby to be in that category.  Ironically, there’s more to be learned from bad writing than that which is so well-written you’re entirely immersed in the story.  Nonetheless, when you find yourself enjoying a book to that level, study it afterwards to determine why it worked so well.

I hope these tips garnered from my experience writing as well as reading the works of others will make your journey as a serial writer a little smoother.

Comma, give me a break!

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I think we all realize that whether or not a person likes a book is highly subjective. I’ve read (or tried to read) books with numerous five-star reviews that I didn’t like and couldn’t get through. Some were well-written, just boring or populated with unappealing characters, while others were poorly written and/or edited. I’m a bit of a grammar/typo Nazi myself so I hide my head in shame that someone put one of my books in that category.

I’ve heard that no literary agent or publisher takes an indie book seriously until it has a few three-star reviews. Thus, when I got my first one as an untimely present for my Christmas birthday, I had mixed feelings. I now had the obligatory mediocre review and, to be perfectly honest, the reason had been noted by a previous reviewer, i.e. the lack of commas. I acknowledge this as a valid complaint and have it on my to-do list to rectify. Sadly, at one point I’d actually taken several of them out because they seemed to slow the story down! How ironic is that?

Okay, you may have already guessed that I have a couple confessions to make. First of all, I edited my own books, which I realize is a major no-no, but let me explain. First of all, there were various times when this particular book, which was admittedly my first novel, was set aside for years. When I would get back to it, I could read it like it wasn’t my own and, for the most part, edit effectively. Like I said, I’ve been accused of being a grammar Nazi with other people’s work, and I definitely fixed a lot over time.

Another factor was finding an editor I could trust to do the job. I mean, really do the job. I’ve seen too many acknowledgements in various novels where authors extol and thank their editor while I, nonetheless, find a plethora of things they missed when I read the work in question. Call it pride, if you must, but it was hard not to feel I could do as good or better of a job than some of the supposed pros out there.

And the coup de grace was that I was on a budget. While I don’t mind paying for services that are done correctly, cost combined with not being sure I could find a competent editor resulted in doing it myself. Oh, well, my bad.

The second one is that, even though I have a minor in English, I am not that well-versed in grammar. Seriously. Most of what I know has been learned through my mother correcting me as a child, reading, and, heaven forbid, intuition. I’ve been an avid reader all my life and been writing since I could hold a pencil, yet never liked English classes or understood some of the rules. Diagramming sentences to me was worse than algebra, which made more sense. I really don’t like to point fingers, but in this case I’m going to point one at a prof I had in college who taught the obligatory grammar class for those majoring or minoring in English. That class was, like we say here in Texas, as useless as teats on a boar hog.

The prof, who is probably now dead and gone, couldn’t find a textbook that he liked so we had none. He would lecture, but with no logical order or continuity that I could recognize. All we did the entire term was–you guessed it–diagram sentences. Punctuation was rarely mentioned. One thing I remember him (or perhaps someone else) saying was that English, unlike Latin, was a living language that evolved, that such things as punctuation styles changed over time, and things like comma usage was becoming somewhat optional. You can bet I jumped on that like a duck on a June bug!

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But for purists who were more astute at learning the rules than I was, it was a major faux pas. And apparently the person who left this three-star lambasting was one of them.  I must say that the reviewer was generous in giving it three-stars since s/he didn’t even finish reading it.

Back to the subjectivity of what we like, science fiction is certainly one of those genres that everyone doesn’t care for. (Oops, ended that sentence with a preposition! OMG! Let’s correct that to “one of those genres for which everyone does not care.” Right? Right.) Even with proper punctuation it’s likely s/he wouldn’t have liked it. That I understand. And I do admit s/he has a point and I will fix the problem because, believe it or not, I really am a bit of a perfectionist, but that doesn’t mean that I know everything by a long shot. I’m teachable but, as noted earlier, I never had a decent English teacher or at least one I could follow. Math is much simpler to me with its concrete, easy to follow rules and black and white answers. Equations make a lot more sense.

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So what have I learned that I can pass on to other writers? If I had this to do over, it would be to do a beta reader exchange with someone who has equal editing skills to my own. Fortunately, for subsequent books I was able to find such individuals. And that is what saddens me the most, the other books in the series are in much better shape. I’ve actually received compliments on the editing of at least one of the others. This was my first book and I’ve heard it said that everyone’s first novel should go in the trash bin labeled “tuition.” My problem was that it was the start of a series with so much more to tell! The characters evolved and so did the plot to the point that it took four full-length novels to complete the story. I’m a much better writer now, as all of us become, the more we write.

So, bottom line, I’ll go back eventually and correct the comma situation. I don’t know all the rules, but at this point I’m reasonably confident that I’ll be able to do so in a competent manner. The worst part, as most indie authors know, is that there are so many different formats to deal with, i.e., both print and electronic versions, which complicates the process considerably. Nonetheless, I’ll have the satisfaction of debunking that uncomplimentary review when it’s corrected, unless, of course, those who would appreciate a properly copy edited work are turned off by that seething diatribe, which is actually so excessive that it’s downright amusing. Fortunately, most geeks and nerds, who are my primary audience, anyway, aren’t quite so concerned, though there are exceptions, of course, many of whom I met at NASA.

<Sigh.>

Rant over.

Thanks for listening.

P.S. If you’d like an ecopy of the book in question, “Beyond the Hidden Sky,” for free, join my mailing list, which qualifies you for a free download. You can do so here.

Authors & Readers: Symbiotic or Parasitic Relationship?

writingprocessI think the majority of people agree that the most difficult challenge of mortality is dealing with relationships. Much has been written about romantic relationships, parent-child relationships and business relationships. Marketers certainly understand the supplier – consumer relationship. Other types of relationships, however, such as the implied partnership between authors and their readers, don’t quite fit these other models.

The first and most basic thing to remember is that no one likes much less gets along with everyone. As an astrologer I can explain why, but that isn’t the point I want to explore. Just remember that the basics of human interactions apply whenever you work with another person in any capacity. Everyone is programmed in a different way. Some are friendly and generous, others aggressive and selfish with these traits possible on either side of the author/reader equation. Some authors expect too much, some readers expect too much. Such is life. Don’t even get me going on the entitlement mentality prevalent at all economic levels in today’s society or this will turn into a book instead of a blog.

Getting back on point, consider that authors are of necessity also readers but readers are not always authors. Remember the quote not to judge another person until you’ve walked a mile in their moccasins? Well, kick off your shoes and get ready as I attempt to take readers and authors alike down the others’ path.

Understanding is one of the reasons that authors band together, read each other’s stories and provide reviews as well as feedback or editing tips. While there is a hint of competition within any career field, there is also support and understanding. This is not to say all authors get along, either, only that there’s a fundamental understanding that exists amongst any group doing similar work.

Readers who have never crafted so much as a short story outside of that required in a language arts class may be familiar with an author’s fictitious world yet not understand what it takes to build one. Authors are artists who use words just like visual artists use color and texture, sculptors use tangible material, musicians use sounds, and chefs use food to name a few. Creative expression is an important part of life as can be seen in ancient civilizations no matter how ancient or primitive. So to begin to understand an author a person should examine their own means of creative expression which provides at least rudimentary common ground.

faulknerquoteCreativity comes out in different ways coupled with varying degrees of motivation and expectations on the part of the creator. Most will agree it’s something they are compelled to do, at least once you get past Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and enter the realm of self-actualization. After the expression itself things get trickier. If a person wants to share his or her craft with others s/he wants it validated with praise and appreciation because their work is an extension of their ego. The person may not be dependent on this reinforcement but it’s definitely nice. This is why writers keep writing in spite of a plethora of rejections and why the options for self-publishing have produced millions of wannabe authors. The same goes for musicians and any other type of artist.

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The next step beyond art for art’s sake is to receive compensation, even though it may originate as a labor of love. Some authors prostitute themselves writing for hire just to make a living. Writers are valued by those who can’t. It is often the trump card, especially for a job where literary expression is not required; as an engineer who could write I never had trouble finding a job. Writing for hire may pay the bills but it doesn’t feed your soul. That only comes when you get praise and, better yet, compensated in some way for something that came from within your heart.

How much blood, sweat and tears goes into any work of art varies. There are those who can crank out a story on a rainy afternoon versus those who labor over an epic novel for years or even decades. Neither case is necessarily a measure of talent or readability. In other words, some authors would make a killing if paid by the hour while others would be so poorly compensated it would defy measurement in any monetary currency.

The issue here diverts to the plea these days to raise the USA minimum wage. Many authors would give blood and pay money to make even the existing minimum wage. Yet authors are usually expected in today’s glutted market to sell their work for ninety-nine cents or even give it away for free.

The days when a book was on the shelf in a bookstore for six weeks, was remaindered and then considered “out of print” are essentially over. For writers that is both good news and bad news. Readers have at least nine million books from which to choose and writers can keep their book in the sales arena as long as they wish. To get a visual on the competition, however, think back to any time you attended a professional or college level sporting event or rock concert in a full-to-capacity stadium or auditorium. Now consider what it would take to draw attention to yourself in that crowd. Then multiply the crowd by at least one hundred. That, my friend, is what the average author is up against.

Clearly it’s a “Readers’ Market” which shows why the people making money in publishing these days are the promoters. For many Indie authors the work may be a labor of love but also an expensive hobby if one hopes to be discovered. I saw a comment on LinkedIn a while back where an author stated that for every 500 books downloaded for FREE, he was lucky to get one review. If he’d been paid even ninety-nine cents for each of those books he would have been happy. Note, however, that even if that were the case he probably would have only received about thirty cents for each one from Amazon. So distributors, likewise, often make far more than authors; booksellers are not into it from the goodness of their hearts.

At this point any authors out there are probably vigorously nodding in agreement and not too happy about being reminded of their place in the literary food-chain which segues over to readers and hopefully reviewers, the importance of which I’ll try to explain. From a reader’s point of view, mention of providing a review may trigger unpleasant flashes of deja-vu back to high school English class where those mandatory book reports on dry and hopelessly boring stories had as much appeal as a root canal. Some readers pay attention to reviews before buying a book while others couldn’t care less. However, they’re important to authors for more reasons than to attract more readers.

It comes back to competition. Some promotional websites won’t even feature a book until it has a minimum number of favorable reviews, even for paid listings. Furthermore, Amazon ranks each book based on reviews as well as sales which in turn contribute to its ranking. Its ranking, in turn, determines whether it comes up on page one or two hundred via search engines. This is also a reason authors offer their book for free because even books that are given away on Amazon count toward its rankings. If it gets ranked highly enough, people will find it and hopefully eventually buy it when it’s no longer free.

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So now we’re back to the relationship issue and why authors need readers and vice versa. It also helps explain reactions based on the personality of each and why some readers may be annoyed when asked for a review while authors may expect at least a review in return (especially if they provided their book for free and even more so if it was a print copy which cost them for the book itself and possibly postage as opposed to transmitting an ebook via email or download link).

In the hopes that at least a few authors and readers have slogged through this much-longer-than-intended blog, consider whether your attitude is symbiotic or parasitic. Readers, do you respect and support, either financially or otherwise, the authors who put part of themselves into the work you enjoy? Or do you expect to enjoy their creative efforts while giving nothing in return? Authors, do you expect your readers to have the same ease of expression in writing as you do and jump at the chance to leave their opinion as a review? Or are you grateful to have readers at all given the many choices they have at their fingertips?

Here are a few points to remember for those on both sides of these important partnerships.

Author Admonitions

  1. Readers may react to the thought of writing a review with all the fondness of a 10th grade book report.
  2. Readers do so for pleasure and don’t want to be pushed to do something they see as unpleasant.
  3. Readers are not always writers and often find written expression difficult.
  4. Readers have literally millions of books to choose from so it’s best to treat them like the treasures they are.

Reader Admonitions

  1. Any creative work represents a part of its creator’s heart and soul.
  2. Is it fair to expect authors to work for free?
  3. Reviews can comprise a few heart-felt sentences as if talking to a friend and don’t have to be lengthy or Pulitzer Prize material.
  4. Cutting and pasting your review to more than one site (e.g., Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Goodreads) takes a few minutes of your time but will be greatly appreciated and make an author’s day, which is good karma.

Face it, authors and readers need each other but authors have a distinct and even quantifiable disadvantage. Readers, please show your love and appreciation for the authors whose books occupy your shelves or e-reader of choice by leaving a short review. Authors, recognize not everyone finds putting their thoughts into words enjoyable and love your readers regardless.

And finally, it’s my sincerest hope that no authors or readers suffered too many blisters while treading along this long and convoluted path of mutual understanding.