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Reviewing Reviews

I just got a pair of reviews for my latest Jack book, FUZZY NAVEL (July 8, 2008), and it got me thinking about something:

Reviews sell books.

I know this for a fact, because I buy books after reading reviews. It doesn't even matter if the book was given a thumbs up or thumbs down. I read reviews for content, not opinion, and reviews alert me to the existence of the types of books I normally buy.

If this works on me, I'm guessing it works on other people. As a counter example, I've never bought a book because I ate a piece of candy with the book cover image glued to the wrapper. Because of this, I don't pass out snacks to potential fans. But I do try to get reviews.

Unfortunately, getting reviewed is becoming harder and harder.

The first reason: Too much competition. There are 200,000 books being released every year, and too little space to review them in. The bestsellers get preferential treatment, leaving the rest of us midlisters to fight for scraps.

The second reason: Too few publications review books. As newspaper circulation dwindles, so does advertising by publishers, which reduces or eliminates the book review pages.

I haven't gotten a lot of print reviews. No big ones like the NYT, ET, or People, and not many by bigger newspapers. My big hometown paper, The Chicago Tribune, has never reviewed me, even though my books are set in Chicago. Though my other two Chicago papers, The Sun-Times and the Daily Herald, have reviewed me, but in both of those cases knowing the reviewer probably had something to do with it.

Genre mags have been good to me, and I've been reviewed in EQMM, The Strand, Mystery Scene, and Crimespree, but they've each missed a few titles.

The trade mags (Booklist, Kirkus, Library Journal, PW) have all reviewed me, but again they've missed a title here and there.

The Internet has been very kind. Lots of book review sites and blogs have mentioned my books, and Amazon.com reviewers continue to post their comments about my oeuvre.

How does a writer get reviews?

Usually a publicist, either in-house or independent, sends out galleys or ARCs to reviewers along with a brief letter and perhaps a press release. Reviewers can receive over a hundred books a week, even though they only have space in their column to review six books.

Sometimes an author will send books directly to reviewers, and this personal touch may improve their chances. But it's expensive, time consuming, and there is still no guarantee you'll be reviewed.

A good way to get reviewed is to already be a bestseller. Then reviewers will seek out the book, because they know their readers are anxious to hear it. But even then, some reviewers might pass on reviewing the latest Patricia Cornwell if given the chance, and might embrace a smaller author whose book they adored.

Since competition for print reviews is so stiff, many authors are concentrating on the Internet. The World Wide Web has the advantage of being Googleable forever, which can lead people to your book for years after it's been published. But most of the review sites are small, getting very few hits. While it may be great that you're reviewed on 100 blogs, you have to consider the cost-effectiveness of it. Sending out 100 ARCs will cost about $500 (double if you have to pay for your own ACRs), and you may only be reaching an audience of 50,000 people total. Two million people read the Tribune, and it only cost you $5 to send the ARC.

I've seen authors offer free copies of books to Amazon reviewers, which seems silly considering the very small number of books Amazon actually sells.

I've also seen authors give free books to bloggers, which is a somewhat better prospect, but even then you have to consider cost-effectiveness.

It's a dismal situation.

Writers and publishers spend big money on ads and fancy multimedia websites, with unspectacular results.

They spend big money on galleys and ARCs, even though the overwhelming majority of them don't lead to reviews.

More and more books are being released, with less and less print venues to review them in, and Interent reviews are probably not cost-effective to procure.

So what's the answer? Here are a few:

1. Buy reviews. I'm not talking about paying a reviewer. I'm talking about getting a more famous peer to review your book, then using that as the basis for print ads. If your publisher has an advertising budget, it's a much better use of their money if they run 200 words about your latest, reviewed by a known writer, than the standard book cover/author photo/blurb.

2. Schmooze. Reviewers are people. Meet them. Be nice to them. Chances are they'll remember you, and you'll have a better shot at being reviewed than the thousands of authors they don't know.

3. Give away ebooks. While mailing out review copies to people with small blogs probably isn't cost effective, you can email them a pdf file of your latest for free. You'll have to clear this with your publisher first. Remind them how much they spend on galleys.

4. Become a reviewer. Many of us have blogs and MySpace pages. There is also Shelfari, Twitter, GoodReads, Amazon, BN.com, and many others. Review your fellow authors in as many places as possible.

What are some other good places to post reviews? I want to hear them. By the end of the week I'd like to have a semi-comprehensive list of all the major places fans can review books. Then I'll repost this blog entry with the list at the bottom, to the service of all writerdom.

In the meantime, I humbly ask you to review my books in as many places as humanly possible.

Yes, I'm serious. Review my books. Right now.

Contests

If you're a fan of the Claire Fergusson/Russ Van Alstyne mysteries written by friend and literary dynamo Julia Spencer-Fleming (and you should be) she's giving away free books on her website.

If you aren't a fan yet, I'm giving you a chance to become a fan.

Go to www.juliaspencerfleming.com, read the excerpt for her latest novel I SHALL NOT WANT, and answer this question:

"What job does Hadley Knox swear she's going to take?"

Email your answer to Julia at julia@juliaspencerfleming.com. Five lucky folks will get free books. Tell her JA sent you...

I'm always harping about how writers need to improve their public speaking skills, and I just found out another friend of mine has written a book on the subject. USING STORIES AND HUMOR, by Joanna Slan, is all about grabbing your audience (figuratively.)

Post your most embarassing public speech story here, and the winner will get a free copy.

Last, but not least, I found an extra advance reading copy of FUZZY NAVEL hiding under my desk.

Send me a picture of you holding one of my books. The most creative pic gets the copy. Runner ups get something else for free--I have a few dozen magazines with my stories in them.

Now go have at it.

Uncertainty

Writing isn't a career for the weak-hearted.

Besides the regular perks of self-employment, such as spending countless hours on your tax return, being without health insurance, and lack of regular paychecks, there is also what I consider to be the the most daunting aspect of all:

The fact that, at any moment, you won't have a career anymore.

Many things conspire to sabotage our livelihoods.

Signing with a bad or mediocre agent is like putting your all your money on a three-legged horse to place. Even good agents can be wrong sometimes, which is why they're unable to sell much of what they acquire.

Your editor can quit. Your publisher can change agendas. Other, similar books can tank, squashing plans for yours. Like all companies, publishing houses often have good employees and bad employees, and who winds up in charge of editing, promoting, and marketing your book is a crapshoot---especially since only 1 out of 5 books makes a profit anyway.

Bookstores may not buy your book sufficient quantities, or reorder stock when it sells. They can shelve it wrong, ignore coop placement, refuse to stock your backlist, and do a hundred other things that could hurt your potential sales.

The readers may not buy it. They may not like it. They may not know it even exists.

I've often said that you have to sell a book several times in order to actually earn a royalty. First, to an agent, then to an editor, then to the publisher, then to distributors, then to bookstores, then to the customer. Anywhere along the food chain, tragedy can occur.

No, this isn't a career for people who want or need security.

But the worst thing about being a professional writer has to be this:

Being between contracts.

It's true that your second book is harder to sell than your first. Numbers follow you. If your sales aren't strong, your career is pretty much over.

When you have a contract, and a guarantee of a book coming out and a check coming in, you breathe a little easier. That's real, concrete, something you can count on.

But then your contract ends. And, for those who haven't been in this position before, I have to lay down some bitter truth here: it can be weeks, or months, before you get another contract. Sometimes even years.

You'd think that a publisher who has been growing a writer for several books will want to immediately reassure the writer that there will be more books to come. This isn't the case. Deciding to offer a new contract depends on many things. Numbers, money, in-house enthusiasm, trends, backlist sales, critical response, the influx of new people and farewell to old people at the publisher, new imprints, closed lines, and so on.

Plus, since your publisher often has a first look option for your next book, there's no rush. You give them a manuscript or outline, and they can take up to three months to make an offer.

This waiting time is hell.

If you're a guy, it's like having to propose to your spouse all over again every few years. And ladies, it isn't romantic. It's nerve-wracking. The possibility of being told no can terrify the stoutest heart.

So, when you're between contracts, how should you deal with it? After so much booze, so much fingernail chewing, so many phone calls and emails to peers who assure you that of course you'll get an offer, what can you do to keep your spirits up?

Here are some answers:

Write. The best way to cope with the anxiety of being without any visable means of support is to get another iron in the fire. The more projects you have completed, the better your chances at selling one of them. While you're waiting to get a contract for one book, write another book. Or a screenplay. Or some short stories.

My latest book was on submission for almost six months before it sold. In the meantime I wrote another book and a screenplay--which are now on submission. I'm currently working on three other projects. Writer's write. They don't wait around with their fingers crossed.

Believe. I'm not big on faith. I prefer cold, hard, provable facts, and think hoping and wishing for things have as much use as guilt and worry--in other words, no use at all.

But having confidence in my work, and knowing that if this current project doesn't sell, the next one will, is how I'm able to sleep at night when I'm between contracts. I believe I'll succeed. Without resorting to mantras, daily affirmations, or self-pep talks, you can also believe you'll succeed by remembering the following:
  • You've got talent.
  • You're constantly honing your craft.
  • You're smart.
  • You're dedicated.
  • You work hard.
  • You keep writing.
  • You won't ever give up.

Actually, that does sound like a self-pep talk. But so what? You need to believe in all of these things if you truly want to be successful.

Success isn't about accepting "no." It's about searching until you find a "yes."

Think. This one is the hardest. While writers tend to be overly introspective, they aren't normally self-critical. After all, in order to have confidence and believe in ourselves, we have to trust our writing, our goals, our business plans.

But we should only trust those things after they've been proven.

I posit--and I'm 99% right--that your worst enemy in this business isn't your agent, your editor, or the publishing industry as a whole.

It's you.

If you're not being offered contracts, if your career is flagging, if you've been rejected a gazillion times and don't understand why, it's because you aren't looking hard enough at what you're doing wrong. Because, believe me, you're doing something wrong.

Yes, publishing comes down to luck. But odds play a part in luck. And if you understand odds and stack them in your favor when you can, you eventually have to win something.

If you're doing more losing than winning, you need to figure out why. It's not the casino's fault--their odds are set. It's your fault, because you're a shitty gambler.

Here are some things to consider:

  • Check the writing. It might not be as sharp as you think it is. Get other people's opinions and demand criticism, not praise. Figure out what you're doing wrong. Examine the lock before you make the key, study the markets, understand the genre you're writing in, and figure out your place in the machine.
  • Evaluate your professional relationships. If your agent isn't working for you, dump her. If your publishing house isn't behind you, leave them. Don't settle for scraps, because then scraps are all you'll get.
  • Examine your goals. Are these attainable goals (I'll send out 50 queries, finish the book, and rewrite the outline) or goals that are beyond your control (I'll get an agent, become a bestseller)? Unrealistic goals not only cause disappointment, but your structure for reaching them is invariably flawed.
  • Look at yourself. No one thinks they're difficult, negative, stubborn, or demanding. Yet, at times, all of us are all of these things. Projecting them professionally is the kiss of death. Observe and understand the effect you have on others. If someone insults you, even constructively, assume that a hundred other people think the same thing but don't have the guts to tell you.

Like everything in life, the more you have control over (your craft, your drive, your attitude, your relationships) the less uncertainty you'll encounter.

There will still be uncertainty, because success still requires luck. But empowering yourself with knowledge, awareness, confidence, and good old-fashioned hard work is a lot more productive than holding your breath and hoping.

Now uncross your damn fingers and get proactive.

Peers and the Healthy Writer

I've been doing a lot of travelling lately, giving my standard inspirational talk to newbies (if you've seen my tattoos, you know the talk I mean) and a topic that keeps coming up is the importance of peers to today's writer.

Peers are both the most and least important people in your career. It all depends on what you use them for.

Here's a quickie rundown of everything peery.

Herding Instinct. If you're a newbie writer who lives a Unibomberish existence off the grid, you aren't reading this. For the rest of us, seeking out like-minded folks is part of our genetic code.

Since writing is a solitary profession, meeting other writers--both online and in real life--is a way to reassure ourselves that we're normal after all. Most writers have the same concerns, problems, and fears. Depending on your experience, there's always more to learn and tales to share.

This is good. Networking offers opportunities to question, evaluate, test, and explore the reasons we work the way we work. We all can learn a great deal from each other, and Internet forums, blogs, bulletin boards, groups, and discussions, along with writing conventions and conferences, book fairs, and literary festivals, are the perfect way to do this.

You obviously read this blog, but do you contribute to it? Do you ask questions, offer advice, and communicate? Communication is a two way street, and you learn more from give and take than you do simply lurking and watching.

Critiquing. While trading insider secrets is a great reason to hang out with other writers, the best way to use your peers is as readers. If you haven't ever joined a writer's group, you should consider it. If you're already published, offer to trade manuscripts with your peers before your agent or editor has a look. I do this with many different authors, and I always learn a lot.

While it's always nice to be praised, it's much better to seek problems with your work, so those can be fixed before the book reaches the street and the hate email starts pouring in.

Critiquing goes both ways, and you can also learn from reading a peer's manuscript and articulating what can be made stronger, and possibly how.

Approval. While I endorse forging some ties with a few close writing friends, for the most part you don't need to worry about the acceptance of your peers. While a certain percentage of them--especially if you do a lot of appearances--will buy your books if they like what you have to say, the fact is that your peers aren't your main audience.

Worrying about who is saying what about whom, feeling snubbed because you never got that nomination or award, and wondering why those cliques of popular authors never seem to include you--that's all wasted effort on your part.

You don't need to be accepted by the writing community, the genre community, the awards committee, your local writing organization, or any other group of individual in order to be happy or successful.

The opinion of your peers, as a group, simply doesn't matter.

High school was a long time ago. If you like yourself, and have at least one person in the world who also likes you, that's all you'll ever need.

Blurbing. Try to blurb everyone you can. When asking for blurbs, don't be aggressive, or disappointed if it doesn't work out. That's all that needs to be said on the subject.

For an alternate viewpoint of this, check out Barry Eisler's blog post over at MJ Rose's Buzz, Balls, and Hype:

http://mjroseblog.typepad.com/buzz_balls_hype/2006/09/blurbersion.html

Commiseration. Hanging out with writers, talking the talk, is always helpful. But sometimes you need something deeper. Things happen in the career, both good and bad, and often we don't know how to react to them. Sometimes we need a peer to offer their perspective. Sometimes we just need someone to bitch to.

This is where the line between peer and friend begins to blur. Try to keep them separate.

A peer is a fellow writer.

A friend is a favored companion.

All peers are not friends, and all friends are not peers.

If you can land one who is both, cherish that relationship, because you can benefit greatly from it. Just remember to put back in what you take out.

And remember to never air dirty laundry, yours or anyone else's.

Advice. As you move up in the writing world, more and more people will ask you for your advice because they want to get where you're at.

Offer that advice, but always make sure they know that your way isn't the only way, and that just because you're a so-called expert doesn't mean you know everything.

And make sure, when you hear expert advice, you remember that as well.

There are few universal truths in writing. Learn what you can, test things for yourself, and discard what doesn't work.

Support. We need to help each other, not hurt each other.

That involves two basic principles.

1. Not thinking or acting like you're better than anyone else, and never publicly criticizing other authors.

2. Being friendly, accessible, and professional.

Treat other writers like you want to be treated, no matter their experience level, or how incredibly obnoxious, small-minded, or oblivious they are.

Being right is not an excuse for being mean. Being successful is not an excuse for being self-important. Being honest is not an invitation to getting attacked.

Help others and keep the negativity private.

That said, I've officially declared tomorrow, May 3 ,to be "Hug Another Author Day."

Tag, you're it. Spread the word. Virtual hugs are okay too.

And, as always, thanks for reading. Hugs to all you folks. :)
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