Today’s Writing Tip

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Reviewer’s opinions of your book are not only subjective, but their rating systems are often inconsistent as well. I can’t believe how many 3-star reviews I’ve seen where the person goes on to say how good the book was. I don’t know about you, but when a reviewer awards less than 4-stars I expect to see some explanation for why the book rated such a mediocre review.

I suppose you can associate the 5-star system with academic grades. In other words:

***** = A

**** = B

*** = C

** = D

*=F

In that context, I suppose a 3-star review thus equates to a C, which supposedly is average.  But I still find it confusing, if that’s the case, how a reviewer will then go on to compliment the book and say good things about it without saying how it could be improved.

As an author, you want reviews and should thus be reviewing books yourself. Bear this in mind when you do so: If you give a book a poor rating, do the author and readers of the review a favor and tell them why, even if it’s purely subjective, such as you didn’t like the main character or the writing style. That will give them a better idea what you’re trying to say.

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Review of “Half Life” by Scott Skipper

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The premise of this story is that a brutal earthquake and tsunami, similar to what happened to Japan a few years back, strikes California, causing a meltdown at a decommissioned nuclear plant. Due to various political stalemates, the fuel rods had been left on-site rather than being transported to a permanent storage location, causing considerable havoc as radiation saturates the populated area around Los Angeles. The credibility of such an occurrence is so high, that I can’t help but wonder how much of this book will turn out to be prophetic.

The story takes place during a gubernatorial election year and the political issues associated with this disaster are paramount. One thing potential readers need to know about Scott’s books is that they are extremely political incorrect. If telling it like it is bothers you, then don’t even try reading one of his books. It will just piss you off, you’ll miss the entire point, and then you’ll give him an abysmal review, which will be totally undeserved. Why? Because his books are well written, witty, boast clever plots, are populated with convincing characters, and don’t shy away from some of the political issues in the news today. Personally, I find them hilarious, albeit painfully true.

This complex tale not only covers the political and conspiratorial aspects of such a preventable catastrophe, but its impact on the main characters, the agendas of those running for political office, and those trying to clean up the mess. The technical details were absolutely outstanding. As a science geek myself, I ate them up, because I’m one of those weird types who loves to see science tightly woven into a plot. It lends authenticity, and when well done, is instructional. Obviously, he did his homework researching such a mess and what it would take to clean it up.

Scott Skipper is one of my favorite authors, especially his “Alien Affairs” series, which I love. This story isn’t quite as enchanting and took a while to get rolling. The “travel-log” chapters near the beginning moved pretty slowly, even though I could understand he was trying to demonstrate the frustration and complexity of Eric and Jamie’s convoluted  trip home, which required a jaunt through Mexico to skirt the “hot zone” left by the power plant meltdown. If you get stuck somewhere in Mexico, somewhere around Guadalajara, skip ahead–you won’t miss much and the rest of the story is well-worth it.

About a third of the way through the story it really took off in typical Scott Skipper style with the sarcastic humor and snarky characters I love. One secretary, Enid, served as great comic relief with her British slang and often racist and bigoted remarks. This story would make a fantastic movie, the main problem being that the political leanings of those in Hollywood wouldn’t touch this story if they were wearing a hazmat suit and wielding an insulated barge pole.

Since I think the story could use a bit of tightening of those early travel-log chapters and would like to see a more sophisticated cover worthy of what is really a great story, I can’t quite give this story five starts, but certainly 4.5. Just be warned, if you’re easily offended, don’t even bother, unless you’re open-minded enough to recognize the many truths embedded in this thought-provoking, cautionary tale.

You can pick up a copy on Amazon here.

Review of “The Contract Between Heaven and Earth” by Gwen Plano and John Howell

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I really enjoyed the original premise of this fast-moving thriller. I must admit that it is the first book in quite a while that I stayed up into the wee-hours of the night to finish. The characters were well-developed and engaging. I also appreciated the fact that it was nicely edited, thus lacking any typos or other issues that tripped up my engagement with the characters and plot.

It was truly cross-genre, not only of two, i.e. thriller and romance, but also a paranormal/spiritual element as well, all of which were nicely intertwined in a non-contrived manner. I have only two criticisms, one of which is I would have liked to have seen a bit more plot complexity for something that supposedly had the potential to destroy the world. Exactly who, how, and why were never satisfactorily revealed. My other criticism is that there was at least one major loose end dangling at the end, which was another thing that I found slightly disappointing.

These are minor issues with what is otherwise a well-written story and I hope that perhaps the authors plan to deal with them in the sequel. As with all reviews, this one is subjective. I’m a detail-oriented person who loves a meatier plot (think Tom Clancy) and saw so many ways this could have been a more expansive story. However, for those who like a straight-line, predictable plot, it’s a smooth, enjoyable read.

Pick up your copy on Amazon here.

An Author’s Lament on a Hot Summer Day

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No doubt you’ve seen those unfortunate individuals on the side of the road with a sign that says “Will Work for Food.” Somehow I can relate, though I admit I’m not quite as destitute as those poor souls. Nonetheless, if you’re an author, unless you have a patient spouse who pays the bills or an alternate source of income such as a day job, retirement, or you have the good fortune to be a trust fund baby, chances are your income could be in a similar range, or possibly even less. Way less, like in negative numbers.

It seems no one these days wants to pay for anything, especially if it’s creative. The starving artist has been a familiar entity for eons. People want their music for free, their reading material for free, their games for free, and their artwork for free. This is what the electronic age has brought us. Now that books, music, pictures, and even movies are no longer on tangible media, they’re expected to be free. And of course, now that they’re teaching AI to create, in no time artists of all varieties could be out of business entirely. Muses today get no respect.

So tell me–who out there in any other profession, whether it’s accounting, engineering, administrating, or heaven forbid, even politics, is willing to work for free? To coin an apropos phrase from “Ferris Buehler’s Day Off,” Anyone? Anyone? When’s the last time you went into the grocery store and got your food for free?

Now that I’m retired, I can indulge in pursuing my work as an author. Unfortunately, lately that’s been directed more at marketing and promoting than creating. And the frustration some days is downright scream-inducing. The cash going out for services far outweighs what little comes in. If I were a logical person, I’d quit. If it were only about money, I’d quit. But do I? No. Because writing is in my blood (at least my astrological imprint, which features Kalliope, the muse of epic poetry on my ascendant). While I can make ends meet (barely) through other means, I’d love nothing more than to make a generous (or even adequate…okay, even meager) income from my writing. Tax write-offs are nice, but after a while it gets old. Just once I’d like to finish in the black.

The one thing authors appreciate (most the time, anyway) is a review, especially when we give away our books. And trust me, selling it for 99c is virtually the same as giving it away. Thinking about how long it took to write, edit, and publish it is verboten, because that’s downright depressing. I couldn’t even begin to calculate what I make per hour when selling a book for 99c, most likely less than a Mexican peso per hour, maybe even per day, if that. Yet people who are qualified to do no more than repeat the mantra, “Do you want fries with that?” want $15/hour. Right. And people in hell want ice water.

Reviews are important. Once you get a certain amount, vendors such as Amazon give your book a little more attention and help. If you want to look for an agent, be accepted by certain promoters (for a generous fee, mind you), or even expand into the audio book world, reviews are one measure of your popularity.

Thus, to me, it’s no more than common courtesy to leave a review, especially when you get a few hours entertainment and enjoyment out of a book that took someone a considerable amount of time and effort to produce. If you don’t like it or don’t finish it, fine. No review is better in most cases than a really bad one. Yet, some don’t take your book seriously until you have a few bad ones to show it wasn’t just your family and friends posting them (which isn’t as easy to achieve as you may think, unless you have some serious blackmail material). Granted, reviews are subjective and one man’s trash is another man’s treasure. I get that.

More than likely, unless you’re a fellow author you haven’t even made it this far in my rant du jour. But even fellow authors aren’t always diligent in leaving a review. It doesn’t have to be an essay worthy of a Pulitzer Prize; a few sentences will do.

We authors ask so little. Is it really that difficult to log into Amazon? You know it’s not. If you bought it there, they’ll even remind you and send a link. And the next time you get a book for free or less than you pay for a good cup of coffee, feel it’s your obligation.

I, for one, would rather work for royalties, but reviews, especially a good one, can make it seem at least marginally worthwhile.

So get off your lazy ass and leave one today for a starving author who, in return, will not only love you forever, but might even keep writing. Capisce?

Today’s Writing Tip

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If you leave a poor review for a book, do the author a favor and tell them why. In some cases it might simply be subjective, since there are few stories everyone loves once they get past Winnie the Pooh. If it’s technical, such as too many typos, say so, giving the author a chance to correct it. Same goes for other things that were confusing or threw you out of a story.

Authors tend to take their reviews seriously and often use them as a guide for future revisions or as lessons learned for future books. However, no one should expect everyone to love their book. You can’t please all the people all the time.

Review of “Non-Profit” by Larry Hyatt

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The author is clearly a talented writer. The story flowed nicely and his characters were fairly well-developed. I think there may have been a few too many characters, but the story revolved around a conference held for those working for non-profit organizations in Louisiana, so a fair amount of people were required. Since I’m retired, in many ways the story reminded me too much of work, LOL. Those who work in the non-profit industry would probably enjoy it. I did laugh out loud several times at their antics. The politics, interaction between employees, dirty little secrets, and so forth were certainly credible and somewhat typical of any office environment, with the added flavor of the South.

One thing I found confusing and then annoying was the fact the author was inconsistent in how he spelled one of the main characters name–sometimes it was Rachael and others Rachel, which at first made be think it was two different people. Another character, Valerie, was also spelled Valarie. It’s also usually a good idea to keep character names different enough they don’t get confused. Having a Rebecca, Jacob, Josh, and the protagonist, Jay, didn’t help keep them separate.

There was also minimal if any physical description regarding what the characters looked like. I realize some readers prefer to imagine what a character looks like themselves and not be told, so this is subjective and a moot point, but I prefer to have that included. I suppose the cover did some of this, which was clever and a great representation of the story. To the author’s credit, there was only one or two actual typos, which I always appreciate. As a grammar Nazi, I can really go on a rant when I’m continually thrown out of a story due to flaws that should have been caught by an editor, proofreader, or even a spellchecker. A few times I got lost regarding who was speaking with the group dialogs, but at least the conversations sounded real.

To me, this was primarily the story of a crazy week at a conference. While it was credible, it wasn’t that interesting to someone outside the industry, but I think the author has the talent to make a more interesting story, perhaps throwing a murder or some other mystery in there for his next work.

You can pick up your copy on Amazon here.

I don’t enjoy giving poor reviews, but…

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I’m not sure where to even start reviewing this book, because I’m having a very difficult time deciding how to rate it using the conventional 5-star system. I hate to leave a poor review, because I know they can be painful. They can be useful for new writers, however, when they are thus motivated to find ways to improve. It was a 3-star review that really got my attention and drove me to re-edit one of my books with regard to comma usage. Writers tend to be blind to their own work, making it difficult to improve unless specifics are pointed out for them to work on.

I do try to find the positive elements in a story and recognize the thought and effort that went into it. However, when I don’t particularly enjoy a book, even find it a chore to finish, I tend to break it down into what I expect from a 5-star story to see how it measured up and thus give it what will hopefully be a fair and somewhat objective rating.

I realize (and so should you) that all reviews are subjective. What one person loves, another abhors. I admit I’m not a big fan of vampires and zombies. I’m also a grammar Nazi and a long way from being a young adult, this story’s target audience. (Nonetheless, I’ve read some YA vampire and zombie stories that I’ve enjoyed and awarded 5 stars, largely because they were well-written, original, kept moving, and drew me into the characters. Therefore, my age and interests don’t mean I’ll automatically give a book a poor rating, but will compare it to others in that genre that I’ve read.)  To its credit, this one was clean as far as language and sex are concerned. It’s definitely in the PG range, maybe even G.

Thus, in this case, I’m reverting to my scientific training and breaking it down to the many things I consider important when rating a book. That will help me understand my own reaction and its rationale as well.

So let’s see what the numbers say.

Plot: This story had a new twist on the somewhat worn-out vampire/paranormal themes as Casey, a young woman in her late teens, begins the physical transformation process into something that isn’t at first clear, to either the protagonist or the reader, since the story point of view is first person narrative. This was fairly well done. You could understand her concern and relate to her confusion and worry about what was happening to her. The sense of mystery and suspense started out well. Information about who the strange people surrounding her really were evolved naturally, as the novel progressed. The structure of the vampire culture was well-developed and it was interesting how certain individuals were linked in different ways. These were supposedly decided in previous lifetimes. So far, so good.

However, as the story progressed and by the time it ended, these original parameters were not always the case. I don’t feel as if there was adequate explanation for some of these diversions. There was also at least one major, unanswered question, that I won’t specify, because it would constitute a spoiler. Maybe it will be answered in the next book, but it seemed like a question that the main character should have been asking, too, since it related to her parents.

How the ending fit into the established cultural order was also vague. If there was as much predestination as implied early on, it seems the other characters would have been aware, even if the protagonist wasn’t.

Rating: 3.0

Character Development: Most of the characters had discernible personalities, though I never really connected emotionally with the protagonist, even with the book written in first person. I could sympathize with her, but only in a general way. Some of the others were annoying, the way they got so spun-up, specifically Takota, but given they were teenagers, this was in-character. Just because I didn’t particularly like all the characters is no fault of the author’s. We don’t like everyone we meet, and they are real enough.

The adults were pretty flat, which is forgivable in a young adult novel, but Dr. Avens was a major character and not fleshed out much better. However, through the eyes of a teenage girl, I suppose discerning where an adult may be coming from may be expecting too much.  In that case, I would expect the main character to have more concerns that he was such an enigma. Getting back into Casey’s deepest feelings is the issue again, and the lack of rendering the depth of her emotions about what was happening to her.

Rating: 2.5

Cover, formatting and interior design: The cover is intriguing and well-designed, the interior nicely done with glyphs before each chapter. The appearance over all was pleasing and looked professional.

Rating: 5.0

Quality of Writing, i.e. editing, grammar, spelling, style, and word use: I was nearly overwhelmed with typos, grammar, missing words, and wrong words. With regard to the writing style in general, the story could have been told in a lot less pages. There was too much irrelevant detail, economy of words was lacking, and it needed some serious line and content editing. There were so many mistakes I was continually jolted out of the story, especially when the wrong word was used, such as canape (an appetizer) instead of canopy (such as over a bed) and shutter (window protection) used instead of shudder (shake with fear or emotion).  The usage of adverbs and adjectives was overdone as well. This undoubtedly affected my entire reaction to the story because it was distracting and downright annoying. A simple spell-checker or grammar checker would have picked up the majority of these, which tells me such details were entirely off the author’s radar. As a reader, they are not off mine.

Rating: 1.5

To determine if a story is well-rounded, I look at five elements I remember by the acronym IDEAS, i.e. imagery, dialog, emotion, action, and suspense.

Imagery: Clearly the author has a very vivid imagination, such that she can describe scenes in vivid detail. However, in many cases it was too much physical detail which slowed down the story. I could have used a few reminders about what some of the characters looked like; some may have never been described. It was okay to describe a place or room in laborious detail once and then drop in a few reminders later, but in some cases it was reiterated too many times and slowed down the story.

Rating: 3.0

Dialog: For the most part, this was well-done and convincing. Conversations were authentic, though sometimes there was confusion with regard to which character was speaking. This can be done without constantly saying “he said” or “she said”, such as by using action such as pacing, or describing their expression or reaction. Including the other person’s name in the dialog itself, is another technique.

Rating: 3.5

Emotion: My ultimate judge of a book, which will earn a story a high ranking, is whether it makes me laugh, cry, or seriously worry about a character. I never became emotionally connected with any of the characters. While they displayed emotions, they were not rendered in an effective enough manner to draw me in. Feelings weren’t ignored completely, just described with a modifier as opposed to rendering what the character was really going through, which is what generates empathy or at least sympathy. There was a lot of anger, but no heart-wrenching emotion, which would have been appropriate in various situations.

Rating: 1.5

Action: There were some scenes that dragged on and on, such that I got so tired of them that I would actually put the book down until the following day, right in the middle of something that should have had me tearing my hair out with regard to what was going to happen. Instead, many times I found myself tearing my hair out with frustration, thinking, “Get on with it, for heaven sake!” It was actually painful to finish this book, between the typos and slow-motion action.

Rating: 2.0

Suspense: The suspense, as defined as wondering with some level of concern what was going to happen next, was moderate, but as noted under “Action”, not developed or sustained enough to drive me to read into the wee hours of the night. There were plenty of questions to be answered, some of which were, others that weren’t. The fact I even finished the book is testimony that there was enough suspense for me to wonder how it would end, so I’ll give it credit for that. The ending was moderately unexpected, but also lacked a certain level of credibility. However, since this is a series, I assume such things will be explained in subsequent volumes.

Rating: 3.0

SUMMARY

So, by rating the various story elements on a 1 to 5 scale as noted above, including plot (3.0); character development (2.5); packaging (5.0); quality of writing (1.5); imagery (3.0); dialog (3.5); emotional impact (1.5); action (2.0); and suspense (3.0), the average came out 2.78. or a weak 3.

This book has potential, but desperately needs copy, line, and content editing to pass muster and even possibly be viewed as a professional work. This is one instance where judging a book by its great cover is very misleading to what lies within.

“Dance of the Lights” by Stephen Geez

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If you have any doubt regarding what life is all about, then you need to read this beautiful story, which will explain it to you. The ultimate love story, I definitely fell in love with most of the characters in this book. They were so real, you felt as if you knew them, that they were your own friends and neighbors, making their way through life and its struggles, including sometimes the painful loss of a loved one. It was an utterly convincing slice of life, where people work hard for what they have, interact with neighbors and loved ones, and most importantly, help one another when the need arises. It was about priorities, caring, and doing the right thing, but not in a flamboyant way. It was about the passage of time, how things change, including people, and the importance of friends.

A light paranormal touch permeated the story, a reminder that what we see is but a small part of what we know as reality. There are some things that simply can’t be explained. Anyone who has ever lost a loved one, yet felt their presence or heard them speaking inside their mind, will relate. Who and what are we? What about those with whom we share our lives, loves, and ambitions? Is it all random? Do certain people come into our lives by chance or design? What is the essence of life? Love? Our very existence?

Don’t expect specific answers to any of these questions because you won’t find them. Rather, there is plenty to ponder. On the one hand, it’s easy to note that those characters who made mistakes were beyond fortunate to find someone to stand behind them and help them get past their troubles. Finances were not a problem for the main characters, who generously shared their substance to help others. Most who fall upon hard times are not so lucky. Those who have had to dig their way out of a bad situation on their own could even feel a touch of bitterness. Yes, this story reflects the ideal, which life seldom is. However, I don’t believe it’s those in sorry circumstances to whom this story applies the most. Rather it would have the most powerful impact on those with the means to help others by expounding the deep satisfaction, friendship, and rewards that come from helping your fellow man.

The characters in this book were familiar in many respects; archetypes, if you will. No doubt you will relate to some more than others, recognize several, and with luck, even see yourself. There are parts that are heart-rending, yet that is a fact of life. Learning to deal with death and grief is part of living.  Learning not to take anything for granted, to appreciate each and every day, realizing that in a flash everything could change, is what enriches our existence.  Years pass a day at a time, yet in what can feel like an instant, they evaporate, leaving you in awe of their passing. Of course the older you are, the more obvious this is.

This cast who populated this story touched my heart in so many ways. In some respects, it was like a  soap opera, as diverse individuals entangled with one another through heredity or circumstance went about their lives, some days normal and predictable, others milestones, or marred by sudden tragedy. In many ways, stories like this are a measure of the reader’s capacity to love. If you don’t fall in love with these characters, feel as if you know them, and even wish you had some of them as friends or neighbors, perhaps you’ve lost touch with your own humanity and need for others in your life.

Author Stephen Geez renders characters you’ll never forget, who’ll live on within your heart forever.  If you could use a few new book-friends or book-neighbors, to say nothing of a nice dose of inspiration, then introduce yourself to these adorable souls over in Tarpon Springs. You’ll be glad you did.

Pick up your copy on Amazon here.

Review of “The Old House” by Karl Morgan

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This paranormal suspense thriller is best described as “Freddie Kruger plays Jumanji.” When Simon Carter’s grandfather dies, he inherits a fortune, contingent on living in an old house for two years. The house is loaded with secrets and a variety of dangers which his namesake and great-grandfather literally built walls around, which Simon has been instructed to uncover in a specific order. Of course circumstances arise which makes this impossible and all hell breaks loose.

The action and suspense were reasonably well-sustained and the author clearly has an excellent imagination. The imagery was reasonably well-developed as well as the plot itself with inter-generational intrigue and the usual discontent that inevitably arises over legacies. The premise for this story was great, but I felt as if it read like a first draft. It could have been so much more than it was, had the author spent a little more time with it to develop the characters.

As a writer myself, I find it relatively easy to capture action and dialog in a story, but the other elements that enrich it and make it stand out often need to be added later, such as emotional impact. I found the characters flat and my involvement with them and the story was nonexistent. For all that was going on, there was nothing that described what the characters were experiencing at an emotional level in a situation that should have been loaded. This is essential for a thriller to evoke the fear and concern you want the reader to experience with the protagonist. Instead, I found some of the action scenes boring since I wasn’t engaged with Simon or anyone else.

This was undoubtedly exacerbated by the omniscient viewpoint, which was difficult to follow. Switching the point of view with a division is one thing, but jumping from one to another is like watching a B movie where you never know or relate to any of the characters. The transitions were bumpy, and there were times when someone simply appeared on the scene from nowhere, and I’m not talking about the specters. The dialog was often stilted and expletives overdone. Missing articles and prepositions scattered throughout indicated a poor job of copy editing.

Like so many stories, this one has great potential. It possess a great framework for an intriguing story, but for me it simply didn’t deliver. At most, I’d give it three stars for a great premise and interesting plotline. I recommend that the author practice rendering emotion for his characters so this story can come alive and contain the impact it could. The author has written several books and this is the first one I’ve read. Unfortunately, it was disappointing enough it’s doubtful I’ll try any of the others.

You can find it on Amazon here.

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….