Random Thoughts: Amazon and the review system

Okay, so before I begin this little rant, I need to clarify that I don’t hate Amazon. I have my books available through Amazon services, and I love that this is something I can do. There have been a few changes to services lately that are hostile to authors. (Not new in Amazon’s history as a business.) And there have been a few changes that seem a bit hostile to customers.

Before I unpack all of that, I need to provide context. So here are some links outlining the issues I am about to discuss.

First, we have changes to how authors are paid through the Kindle Unlimited feature available to consumers through Amazon Prime: http://www.inquisitr.com/2221623/kindle-unlimited-kenpc-explained-self-published-authors-could-be-looking-at-massive-pay-cut/

Next, we have the increased importance of reviews to the Amazon ratings system: http://www.reddit.com/r/Fantasy/comments/3bsuig/amazon_changes_its_rating_system_now_its_more/

Then we have Amazon deciding what reviewers relationships to individual authors are: http://imysantiago.com/2015/07/02/amazon-a-virtual-marketplace-or-big-brother/

Before the changes to Kindle Unlimited payouts went into effect, everyone who publishes through Amazon received an email detailing what those changes would be. Basically, KU will pay out according to pages read. It stinks for some of us, but we knew it was coming. As an individual, I can tell you that most of my sales do not come through KU. I am not stressed about this, but for a lot of us it eats a significant chunk of change. My stance on that was a sort of grumble and a shrug. Amazon, whether we like it or not, is free to change its business practices and we can always change where we distribute our work (even though right now it is the distributor with greatest visibility.) At the very least it’s a significant point of data for indie publishers to consider when making decisions. It is certainly a sign that it is not wise to rely on Amazon as a sole distributor. But we’ve had plenty of those signs in the past. I hope most of us are strategizing accordingly. I know I am. (The strategy to offset this stuff is to diversify channels of distribution. I enroll in kdp select for the first three months of an e-book’s life and then spread out.)

On the heels of this, however, we were made aware that Amazon plans to make reviews a lot more significant to a book’s rating. Okay, so reviews weigh more heavily the more recently they were posted, and how many up-votes the review received. It will also mean reviews from verified purchases matter more. I get the verified purchase thing. It helps to maintain the integrity of the review system if it comes from someone with a verified purchase. That part makes a lot of sense to me.

Okay, so the response in adapting to this, is to scramble for more reviews, if that’s a thing that worries you. I mean, scrambling for reviews is not new to indie publishers. We submit to bloggers and ask our friends who have supported the work by purchasing a copy to leave reviews when and where they can. It helps boost the signal of a book, spreads word of mouth, etc… Again, review systems being fluid and subject to change, for some weird reason, I don’t get anxious about them. I am grateful when they show up, because holy crap! Someone cared enough about this to take time out of their day to write a review when they were under no obligation to do so and what a gift! Hooray! Coffee for everyone!

Except here is where it starts to get weird and I think Amazon gets into some ethical gray area. (By ethical gray area I mean some seriously out-of-bounds shitake.) Here is where Amazon can say, “Hey, you know that thing we are always asking our customers to do? That feedback stuff? Yeah. We think you know the author so your gift isn’t good enough.”

Um. What?

I don’t think this kind of policing is okay. If that sentence sounds familiar that’s because it was part of a mini-twitter rant I had about this yesterday. How does Amazon figure out how you know someone well enough to invalidate feedback? Some of my harshest critics are people I know very well. Aren’t they telling a customer they just wasted their time? And why is Amazon defining relationships for you? It seems weird and hinky.

To be fair, there are author collectives that leave reviews for each others work, there are paid reviewers, and I’m sure there are a lot of other things that happen on a whole other level of shade that I am not familiar with. Here’s the issue, though. I have left reviews for other author’s works, some of whom I interact with via social media, some of whom I know IRL, some I do not know in any context except through reading, and some of whom I’ve since gotten to know better. I left those reviews because I had positive things to say about the work. Maybe it does look sketchy, but it was a way of showing support. Is it naïve to think maybe that I was doing a good thing? No one actually asked me to leave those reviews. I just did it. But I feel discouraged from doing so now. And if I feel discouraged from leaving reviews in the future, that suggests to me that there are other folks strictly on the customer side of things who might be reluctant to leave reviews because of the possibility that they will be wasting their time.

Oh sure, we all waste some time every day, but I don’t think we like to aim for that.

Another thing that I’d like to point out is that indie-publishing is not easy. It is difficult to generate buzz. We all start by making connections with other people, and let’s be real about this, our audience starts with our friends. If we work really hard, we can move beyond that circle, but our real life human connection is where all art begins to meet audience. That has always been the case. The internet has not changed that. It has perhaps made certain points of connection public,  but since when is it okay for a corporation to make a value judgment about the connections that you make?

My concern isn’t that Amazon is taking steps to enhance the integrity of the reviewing system, it is that it also appears to be making judgments on relationships between authors and reviewers. I get the motivation, I just don’t think it’s ethical.


Random Thoughts: The Writing Life – Genre Hopping

So on May 28, my friend (and the person who wrote the introduction for Aliens in the Soda Machine and Other Strange Tales)  wrote this excellent blog post over at Janice Hardy’s Fiction University and in it he mentions genre hopping. It is something that I have a tendency to do. What Dario says in there about experiencing great success with a non-fiction travel book versus the excellent thriller Sutherland’s Rules got me thinking about that. Genre distinctions are useful in terms of pointing potential audience in the direction of fiction that they might like, from the publishing standpoint it’s a marketing category. Genre tells publishers something about audience and gives them/us a starting point in terms of how to market a work. For indie publishers, particularly just starting out, we are just beginning to navigate marketing. When we genre hop, we set ourselves up for extra challenges in that regard. Moving from contemporary fiction to, for example, a  collection of short stories in the new weird genre as I have done between Haunted and Aliens in the Soda Machine can mean that we are starting from scratch between marketing approaches. What is more interesting to me (and probably tells you where my heart really is in all of this) is the writing process, and what leads us, as authors in the process of creation, to do things like genre hop when conventional wisdom indicates that we shouldn’t do it. I think, in my case, it starts with reading habits that began well before I started to write fiction seriously. I’ve always read widely. Even since I was a little kid. I read everything I could get my hands on. When I ran out of books I would break into my parents’ collection and read things meant for adults. I think what that has meant for me in terms of writing is that my writer brain refuses to align itself with a singular category. The stories that take proto-shape in my head naturally genre hop. So the focus becomes not categorization but just telling the best story that I can in whatever form best suited to that story. It also means that things will happen during the proto-stages of a project to change the direction of a story. Haunted was an example of this. I’ve mentioned it in interviews, but Haunted was a novel meant to be contemporary fiction about a family dealing with grief. As I was writing it felt that something was missing. The missing thing turned out to be the voice of the deceased. And so a paranormal element was introduced to the work. There is a sequel, and of course a third book planned to follow the misadventures of the McTutcheon sisters. The second book explores the relationships within the family as they move on with their lives and as such is straight up contemporary fiction. By the time we get to the third book, however, it fulfills the promise of the first novel, with multiple ghosts haunting a bar. I am aware that makes this particular trilogy a bit wonky for purposes of categorization. As fiction, the hope is that each book will succeed because the reader cares about the characters. But in terms of genre distinction and marketing I’ve definitely set myself up for some serious challenges. I mean, this is a trilogy that will hold together but within that each book has a distinctly different flavor. My genre hopping writer’s brain has dictated the terms here. As an indie publisher, it is a pleasure to be able to experiment in this way. The weirdness of genre as it presents in this series is one of the reasons that I chose this particular set of projects to self-publish. Sometimes, writer-brain wants what it wants. (Which is not to suggest that I’m whimsically following the mythic muse down whatever path s/he chooses. Far from it.) I also have the freedom to do this right now because I’m a relatively unknown writer. Point 1 for obscurity, here. In the works, I have other things that more readily fit into distinct categories. But they aren’t necessarily all the same genre. I have never read that way, so it makes sense to me that I don’t write that way, either. I think the trick is to genre-hop with some sort of purpose, but there isn’t an established path for genre hoppers, even though I suspect that there are more of us out there than is immediately evident. So, what about you guys? Readers and writers alike, do you genre-hop? What are the benefits and challenges you experience there?

Random Thoughts: 19 Days into Book Launch 2 – Electric Boogaloo

Hey everybody!

So this post is bound to be a bit… uh… scattered. I am 19 days into the official release of Aliens in the Soda Machine and Other Strange Tales.

This is not my first day at the rodeo in terms of Indie book releases, but I don’t remember being this scattered at this time last year when I released Haunted.

Then again, maybe I am blocking that memory. It’s been a fairly intense writing year for me. Since the release of last year’s Haunted, Devon Miller and I have started and completed the first book in a trilogy, I have started and completed the sequel to Haunted (which should be available in 2016.) I’ve started an sf novel and released a collection of short stories.

Perhaps I am due for a bit of scatter, a sort of forced slow down. But I think the issue is that I keep forgetting about all the things that have to be juggled when a book is released into the wild in addition to the day to day goings on in this particular corner of writer-land. Marketing and promotion is ongoing, but it is particularly intense leading up to a launch, and in the weeks immediately following. I’m still learning, still trying new things and doing things from the last big push that worked. I think when it comes to that side of this that will always be the case. The tools are constantly changing. When this is all happening I tend to forget how much time and energy it really takes and when current projects slow down my knee-jerk reaction is to wonder, “Why is the writing taking longer? What’s wrong with me?”

Yep. I know. Moronic right? I have to remind myself that my attention is also on other tasks that are consequential. I’m not sure why that is.

Another thing that’s happening is that I keep thinking about the next publishing project, and the one after that. There’s an impatience to work on those things. The problem there is that the sequel to Haunted needs to sit untouched for a while. I need critical distance before edits. (Some folks can dive right in, but I’ve learned what works for me, and distance is key.) To round out the tale of the McTutcheon sisters, there is already a third book percolating in my brain. Of course, writer brain wants to work on that, too. But that would be unwise, as I’ve begun the sf novel. This order of projects was planned, by the way. There’s a rhythm to these things. If I dive into the third book about the McTutcheon sisters before the second book has been edited, that sets me up for bigger problems with inconsistencies later. A book changes dramatically from first draft to final version. So, between those books, I’m working on the sf novel. My head is getting turned by other ideas, and maybe a bit of self-imposed pressure to get that next book out, asap. In the midst of it all, I’m thinking, “WHY AM I NOT GETTING MORE DONE!”

My own advice dictates that I’ve got to finish the thing I’m doing right now. My own advice also says that a rushed book is a shitty book. So when my head is spinning like this, I have to tell myself the things I would tell another writer going through it.

Worry about one thing at a time. Stay calm. Make sure you’ve got enough coffee.

How about you guys? How do you handle it when your head starts doing this?