Challenges for Writers: Overcoming Literary Hurdles (Reviews)

Do you remember where you were when you first learned there were over seven million books in the Amazon Kindle Store? Hopefully it wasn’t just a moment ago.

It’s a staggering number, especially when you are about to release your first book. Hell, let’s be honest, it’s staggering even if you’re releasing your fiftieth book, but as difficult as it might seem, there are ways for you to reduce that number.

My writing career officially began in 2012, when I sat down and began work on my first mystery novel, Perfect Pawn, but its foundation dates back to a conversation I had with my wife in 2001. I’m glad I didn’t know back then the extent of the daunting road that lay ahead for me. As I mentioned last week, I have authored a total of ten books, along with two novellas, and I am currently writing my latest work-in-progress. During that time I have done a lot of things right, but an even greater amount of things wrong.

As an up and coming author, you need to accept that when you put the proverbially: The End, on your book, it is a lie. It would be nice if it was true, but that’s just not reality. Your job as an indie author is more like that of a general contractor.  Now that the foundation is complete, you have to focus on getting the rest of the job finished.

If you read last week’s post: Challenges For Writers, maybe you decided that cover design, editing and formatting just isn’t your thing. I can’t find fault with that thinking because not everyone has the time or the background to undertake those tasks. Most indie authors have full time jobs, so focusing on writing when you can, and outsourcing the other stuff, is probably the best option. But there are things beyond those critical issues that you will also need to address.

For the most part, when authors such as James Patterson, Lee Child, or J.D. Robb finish a book they do a lateral pass and their publishing houses take over. As an indie author, you are that publishing house. This means that if you want to effectively compete against those seven million other books on the market you are going to have to do some heavy lifting for yourself. This is where the proverbial rubber hits the road. I would love to be able to tell you what to do, but as I previously mentioned, I am still learning as well. I can only give you advice about what hasn’t worked for me.  At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter what everyone else is doing, all that matters is what you are doing.

I’d originally wanted to address several topics in this post, but I realized it was getting a bit long. So I decided to address them individually. This week I am going to touch on the topic of Reviews. In the upcoming weeks I will talk such issues as: Social Media, Publicity, Stagnant Sales, Keywords and Ads.

Begging for Reviews – Go on Amazon and look at your nearest competitor and marvel at the astronomical review numbers they have. All of a sudden that concept of ‘redistribution’ begins to sound a lot more palatable.

Damn you, James Patterson………………

Damn you, James Patterson………………

Once you start to compare your numbers against theirs its hard not to get bummed out. Hell, you might even begin to wonder if your own mother hates you. I mean, she still hasn’t written a review for you and you gave her that free book years ago. Trust me, you’re not alone.  I can’t begin to tell you the number of free books I have given out to family and friends over the years, but I can tell you the number of reviews that it has generated; which coincidentally is the same number of Super Bowl appearances by the Detroit Lions: ZERO.

Let’s be honest, reviews are really important to authors for a variety of reasons, including:

1) Writing books is a really poor way to make a living, unless you enjoy a regular diet of ramen noodles and tap water, and reviews are your only source of literary validation

2) They factor into the algorithms that sellers like Amazon use when they recommend books to others

But are they worth the time and effort you put into trying to generate them? Sadly, the answer is no, at least not from your inner circle. If you are interested, I have written a more in-depth examination regarding the problem that authors face, in terms of reviews, here: The Labyrinthian World of (Fake) Book Reviews

Since that article, I have reached the conclusion that it is just not worth the effort, at least when it comes to your inner circle. Here is my advice to you: Stop asking and if you feel like giving a book away for free, do it without any thought that you will get a review. You’ll save yourself from a lot of disappointment.

Your focus should be generating enough sales of your book(s) from other sources that will lead to organic reviews. What you (and potential readers) want to see on your Amazon Review page are the ones listed as: Verified Purchase. This means that the review is an organic one from someone who purchased it through Amazon. You know who also likes it? Amazon and their algorithms.

Beyond that, are the reviews by folks listed as: #1 REVIEWER, TOP 10 REVIEWER, TOP 50 REVIEWER, TOP 100 REVIEWER, TOP 500 REVIEWER, TOP 1000 REVIEWER, HALL OF FAME REVIEWER. Next to the aforementioned James Patterson endorsing your book, nothing says ‘buy me’ more than a review from an established Amazon Reviewer.

That being said, you want those reviews to be 4 & 5 stars, so it behooves you to make sure your book is the best it can be when you publish it.   

Next up I will be discussing the topic of Social Media.

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In the news: Where Was God?

The initial period, following the release of any new book, is always a time of great trepidation for an author. It isn’t till the first reviews come in that you’re finally able to breathe a sigh of relief. Fortunately for me, the reviews are coming in for my latest book: Where Was God? An NYPD first responder’s search for answers following the terror attack of September 11th 2001, and they are all positive:

I have read this book during a time of personal struggle and pain. While I try to make a correct decision in life, this book has shined [a] light and reminded me of what I need to do.”

If you are a skeptic and you think God is all BS. Give this book a chance, it will very possibly change your life forever.”

It is one thing to receive a positive review for a fiction book, but getting them for a book on spirituality is deeply humbling.  I recently received a letter from one reader that I wanted to share. He wrote in part, “Early in my journey with God I read ‘The Case for Christ’ and I was disappointed. It was not persuasive and frankly left more food for the cynic in me. Your book felt like a real case for Christ, as if a seasoned trial lawyer was putting on a case.”

This statement was significant to me because the writer is an attorney by profession. Receiving that type of compliment, from someone who is in the legal profession, is truly remarkable.

I was also honored by the fact that FRONTLINE Magazine, the official publication of the NYPD Sergeants Benevolent Association, featured Where Was God? in their latest edition. I have attached a copy below.

In closing, I would just like to reiterate the importance of leaving book reviews, especially for indie authors. So if you have enjoyed any of my books please head on over to Amazon or Barnes & Noble and leave a quick review. I’d greatly appreciate it.

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The Labyrinthian World of (Fake) Book Reviews

I must admit that, as an author with nine books and two novellas under my belt, sometimes I feel like one of those poor souls, standing on the side of the road, holding up a sign that reads: Will Write for Reviews.

And just like in that scenario, most people just stare ahead, not wanting to make eye contact, as they wait for the light to change. I think that is the way it feels for many writers, pleading with their readers to just spare a minute of their time to give a review, but why is it so damn important?

Well, here is a shining example:

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What you are looking at is ‘legalized’ cheating. This is just one of the many sites that will ‘help’ authors quickly obtain an unearned bestseller status for the right price.

To break it down: If you are a writer, with a bunch of disposable cash, you can legitimately buy your way onto the Amazon bestseller list. Admittedly, this is a pretty shady way of doing business, and something that is ‘frowned upon’ by Amazon, but it is technically not a violation of their policies. Ironically, they will allow authors to ‘buy reviews’ from strangers, but an earnest review left by someone they deem to be a family member will be immediately purged. Go figure.

Unfortunately, I don’t know that many self-published authors who have that kind of money lying around, so those looking to utilize this method are generally already successful enough to justify this expenditure or have a publisher willing to aggressively push a product.

Consider for a moment this little scenario:

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I, like most authors I know, would kill for those numbers, but let’s dig a little deeper here for a moment. The author attributed to this amazing rank status has just ONE previously published book under their belt and that novel has clocked in exactly 39 reviews. However, their second book, which is the one represented in all those coveted #1 and #2 spots, has racked up an amazing 323 reviews, but it hasn’t even been released yet. Yes, you read that correctly; the author’s second book, which has taken the top spots on several lists, is not even available yet.  You do the math and see how that adds up.

I’d like to say this is an aberration, but it is not. Getting onto any bestseller list, especially if it is the New York Times or USA Today, is the goal of all authors. It is the literary world’s equivalent of the Super Bowl or World Series, but it is unfortunately very, very skewed and can be manipulated.

Take for instance the curious case of: Handbook for Mortals, written by Lani Sarem. This debut book emerged in early August 2017 and that very same month shot to #1 on the NYT Bestseller List, knocking off a well-established book that had previously held that spot. To say this was a considerable feat would be a gross understatement; especially considering this was not only Ms. Sarem’s first novel, but it was also the first novel from her publisher; which is exactly why it raised so many eyebrows.

So how did this happen?

Well, they apparently identified and exploited a weak link. According to the folks within the Young Adult genre, who immediately began investigating this issue, they found some serious inconsistences / anomalies within the book sales. After speaking to representatives from book stores, they concluded that someone had pre-arranged for large purchases of the book through various sellers they knew reported sales to the NYT.  Effectively, they purchased their way onto the NYT Best Seller List. The author / publisher denied this, but the NYT subsequently pulled the book from their list. Unfortunately, traditional publishing houses have been doing this for a very long time.

Sadly, this is the world that authors live in. For those of us who believe in the sanctity of the review process, we are faced with those who see no problem in fast-tracking their way to the top. Often we are told that other authors are not our competition, but the reality is that this is a naïve belief. Authors ARE in competition with one another for the readers in each genre, but it is a game that is made exponentially harder when the system is manipulated. That is why it is truly so important, for those of us who actually play by the rules, that our readers support our efforts.

A book review only takes a minute, but for that struggling, self-published author, it is like handing them a piece of gold. For those of us who still choose to do things the right way, instead of the easy way, it is probably the only recognition we will get, but maybe, just maybe, your review will be the one that propels our book to critical acclaim.

So what do you say? Roll the dice and reward your favorite author with a review!

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