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Those Elusive Reviews

Like most writers who self publish on Amazon, Goodreads and Smashwords et al., I have difficulty in garnering reviews. It seems that readers just don’t like getting down to writing them. And, as a reader, I must confess I’m no different. Reading a book is, usually, an enjoyable, fulfilling experience, but writing a review of it, a proper one, is demanding, taxing, and can even be hard work; something to avoid, or at least put off.

I’ve just finished Elmore Leonard’s Raylan, a fine book and his last as he passed away last year. It’s a great last hurrah from a superb writer of crime thrillers.  lovepawz  I read it in paperback which, for me, will always be a little better than on screen. And a master craftsman like Leonard on top of his game is pure pleasure. Nevertheless, as much as I loved it, to sit down and craft a fitting, worthy review would take effort. Fortunately, since I bought it in a Montreal bookstore, I do not have to make that effort.

Two years ago, an Irish friend bought my book, The Iran Deception online from Amazon. She liked it and said so in emails. I thanked her and reminded her how good it would be if she wrote a review for me. “I surely will, Tony,” she told me, but the review never came. I gently pushed her on it a couple of times and then gave it up.

Audrey has a family; a husband and three children. She works. She also endured a long period of unemployment. Like the rest of us, she struggles. So, reading for her is done in snatches between chores. Writing a review would be a monumental effort that just will not happen. Bless her.

Another fellow recently bought Down and Out in the Big Mango; my book of short stories about foreigner’s adventures in Thailand. He liked it and wrote me an email full of praise:

“Just a short note to tell you how much I enjoyed your “Down and Out in the Big Mango”. I have been reading it at lunchtimes when I have been teaching at a local college. It’s was a fine collection of some charming and well crafted stories. I must confess my clear favourite was the story of Ray. It was both engaging and poignant with well developed and believable characters you cared for. I felt quite emotional about them at times and didn’t want it to end. Do let me know when you next publish.”

I’ve nudged him twice now in emails to write a review for me, but as yet it has not materialized. Maybe he will surprise me with a glowing review; more likely he won’t, but I shan’t ask him again.

And then there are the reviewers; men and women who read and review books and advertise their skills as such. I was given a long list of such reviewers and emailed each one requesting reviews. Most didn’t reply. Those that did listed conditions (such as the genres they read, or don’t read) that one had to comply with them. I complied as best I could and was placed on waiting lists (“You’re fifteenth on my reading list,” one reviewer emailed me) but I never heard from him again. The problem with “professional” reviewers is they must, inevitably, develop a sense of self importance. Like literary agents, they become gurus; experts in their field and difficult to engage, especially for the beginning writer.

In the beginning, I was advised to engage friends at my “book launch” to read my stuff and write reviews. I duly placed my book on Amazon Select which made it a freebie for five days and then I emailed a host of friends, old workmates and drinking buddies and exhorted them to read my book, my first attempt at a self published novel; the response was poor. Most didn’t give any response at all; not even a reply to my email. One replied that he just couldn’t read a book on a computer screen. “Luddites” like him tell me that, though Amazon’s Kindle and other digital readers have been available and growing in popularity for years, there is still a definite resistance to using them.

Some writers go in for a team effort; a quid pro quo arrangement whereby they review each others books; and boost each others ratings and, consequently, sales. That’s fine as long as the reviews are genuine. But I suspect that if it were overdone, Amazon’s algorithm would frown and bring the curtain down.

On a whim, I turned to my wife. Su is Thai, but unlike most Thais who don’t read, she’s an avid reader, and she loves fiction. She’s university educated, has travelled and lived overseas, and her command of English is good. And as a government officer, her work entails considerable travel, and so she packs a Kindle on her PC. Naturally, on publication, she bought from Amazon a copy of Down and Out in the Big Mango. She read it, and enjoyed it immensely. And then she posted a 5 star review.

Down And Out In The Big Mango: An Excellent Short Story Compilation

Two things attracted me to this book; the gritty, gutsy title and that it was a collection of short stories. As my work entails much travel, I carry a Kindle on my laptop for my reading, and short stories are perfect for travel reading. And as the tales are set in and about Thailand, I was even more intrigued. I was not disappointed.

These nine stories about foreigner’s experiences in the Land of Smiles are superbly crafted, well written and unique. Each story is different, yet each held me from the first sentence. They are dramatic, tense, tender, gritty, and sexy, and packed with a delightful thread of villainy and a deft touch of humor; this author writes to please his readers.

The story I liked most was Ray as it moved me so much emotionally, and I could relate and sympathize with the people in it. Another favorite was the title story, Down and Out in the Big Mango. It’s a book I recommend highly.

Amazon rejected her review; sending her a generalized piece of “boilerplate” stating it could not be published “… in its present form.”

Su modified it and made sure it satisfied all requirements. They still rejected it with the same notice. Maybe Amazon’s algorithm discovered she’s my spouse and were suspicious. They didn’t give a reason; you have to figure it out yourself. You have to read between the lines.

And yet Amazon’s algorithm allowed the following review of Jackie Collins’ “The Love Killers.”

5.0 out of 5 stars fabulous aas(sic) usual, December 19, 2012

By

XXX – See all my reviews

Amazon Verified Purchase(What’s this?)

This review is from: The Love Killers (Kindle Edition)

Jackie Collins rules:)))))))) always looking forward to reading anything she publishes. Keep them coming please. Love you Jackie xxxxxxx

That “review” in no way satisfies the Amazon review requirements. And yet, it was allowed to pass. I find it puzzling.

Do I write reviews? Yes, I do, but only good ones. If I like a book, I will write a review for it praising its virtues and recommending it. I won’t write a bad review. If I don’t like a book, or I think it’s very poor, I quit reading it and put it aside. Even if I battle on and finish it, I will not write a review for it. And the reason is this. Writing a book is an achievement. It’s hard work. The man or woman who sits down and puts heart and soul into producing a book deserves credit; a firm handshake and a solid pat on the back. “Well done,” I say. “And good luck.” But if it turns out poor wrought or badly edited, I simply stop reading. I do the same with paperbacks. To write one or two star reviews for someone who’s put in such hard, honest work would be cruel; in my view poor reviews do not encourage a writer; they discourage.

Many self-published books are nakedly exploitive of the market. They are packed with gratuitous sex and violence, evil villains and vigilante justice,  ogdispensary   designed to sell and make money by appealing to the lowest common denominator; society’s crud. It is to these I would donate one or two star reviews: if I were to read them. But, of course, I would not dream of reading such stuff. And that’s one of the reasons I like Amazon’s “See inside… ” feature. You get to see at least the beginning, the first few pages, of what you’re buying. And as I like to think I possess that what Ernest Hemingway termed “a built-in, shockproof shit detector” most times I don’t buy.

I’ve come to the conclusion that there has to be a ratio between a writer’s book sales and the reviews he or she receives. A large number of book sales must include a number of readers capable of overcoming the inertia to write a review. But the catch is how to get those initial sales if potential buyers are put off by a lack of reviews? Another element to consider is the volume of works a writer has on offer. A single novel carries little weight. But if a writer has five or six or more novels and short stories in his corpus he stands a much better chance of marketing his stuff; volume of work counts. So writers seeking success need to produce; without, of course, sacrificing quality, mind. There’s much food for thought here.

So there we are, writers working hard, turning out books and needing reviews and seeking new ways of getting their readers to write them; and readers reading books and avoiding writing reviews for them. Writers and readers exist in a state of symbiosis; they need each other. Here’s Henry Miller on the subject: “… though reading may not at first blush seem like an act of creation, in a deep sense it is. Without the enthusiastic reader, who is really the author’s counterpart and very often his most secret rival, a book would die.” And with no sales, without a day job, writers would starve. All writers are also readers, but only a few readers are writers and so they do not fully comprehend the writer’s desperate need for reviews, especially now in the age of Amazon and digital books.

I’m feel sure that everyone “in the business” is aware of the recent scandal of review purchasing and sockpuppetry engaged in by some writers, so I won’t resurrect it here. But I have a sneaking hunch that someone out there is working on new ways to “beat the house.”

On Twitter the other day, I came across a Tweet from a writer offering free books in exchange for reviews.

Zero cost, my ebook at the end of the month OR another top ebook in exchange for a review.

Now, that’s a new angle on review buying. And, as no money changes hands, I have to assume it’s OK. After all, he’s simply asking for reviews, not demanding five star reviews as the unscrupulous John Locke paid for. But it does tend to open a box of tricks. Perhaps I should offer a long weekend in Bangkok in exchange for fifty reviews. What about a week in Sin City (Pattaya) for one hundred reviews. Or better still, a weekend in New York at the Waldorf Astoria, including dinner for two, for 2,000 five star reviews? No. No, I could not get into that. I guess some people have no shame, but I’ll wait awhile, continue to write to the best of my ability and try hard by fair means to develop a following, and keep hoping to get rhonest eviews. It’s just the way it is; reviews are difficult to come by.

Born in Manchester, I left England many years ago to get about and see the world. It was the best move I ever made. After much traveling and adventure in Africa, where I worked in many jobs to serve my passion for travel such as English teacher, bar tender, taxi driver, construction worker in the Transvaal goldmines and the copper mines of Zambia, I moved to Canada, basing myself in Quebec, living in Montreal for many years before moving north into the Laurentian Mountains where I built a log home in the town of Ste. Adele. I now reside in Chiang Mai, Thailand and like it a lot.

In the winter of 2012, I published my first novel, an espionage thriller, on Amazon: “The Iran Deception.” Last November I published “Down And Out In The Big Mango” a collection short fiction about foreigner’s experiences in Thailand. I also published two short stories: “A Bangkok Solution” and “A Partner in Crime.” I am presently working on a second novel: “A Bangkok Interlude.”

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