How much is an honest review worth?

DSCF7736

There’s been some discussion recently about the fact that Publishers Weekly is now offering paid reviews to self-published authors – for $399 a pop.

No, I haven’t mislaid a decimal place. Four hundred – as near as damn it – American dollars.

As I remarked on Twitter, for that sort of money I’d expect wing walkers, and a solo extolling the merits of my book at the Last Night of the Proms.

Now, there are various schools of thought around paid-for reviews. I don’t buy reviews myself (except that one time when it was a friend trying to get a service off the ground), and, from the other side of the counter, I’ve recently resolved only to review books that I’ve bought with my own money. (Because a refusal often offends, but not nearly so much as the bad review that you would otherwise be posting.)

Actually, I do believe that most book bloggers are basically honest, and tend to say nothing at all if they can’t say anything nice. I’d recommend this pair of posts from Jo Linsdell and Lovely Audiobooks which debunks the myth that book bloggers are all rolling in free money. Which is hardly surprising, when most of them don’t charge.

And that’s the thing: whichever way you slice it, $399 is a lot of money. Do I believe that I’d get an honest review for $399? Perhaps. Do I believe that anyone else would believe it was an honest review? Perhaps not. To be blunt, the more an author spends on a review, the more flattering everyone else (and perhaps the author too) expects it to be.

But I think that what’s going on here is slightly more than paying for a book review (you can get them a lot cheaper on Reedsy or Fiverr or all sorts of other places, or so I understand) or even plain old advertising.

They’re selling credibility – or trying to. They’re offering you the chance to say, ‘This is my book, and a review of it has appeared in a Publishers’ Weekly supplement, therefore it must be good, right?’

The thing about credibility is that you can’t just rock up and buy it.  Sooner or later the reader is going to catch on to the fact that a Publishers’ Weekly review can be bought. Even if your book actually is as good as all that, the reader will look at some of the others (which, to be frank, are already looking a bit amateurish) and start to wonder… The lowest grade on offer is a C: that means that some truly terrible stuff is going to come out marked ‘average’.

You have to earn your credibility. And the way you earn it is by making your book good. As good as it possibly can be. Oh, it does appear that the review may include suggestions for things you could do better in the future. But you could spend your money on making your book good now, before you put it out into the world.

(The other thing about credibility is that it doesn’t, in itself, make any money. It takes credibility plus hard work. Actually, it’s mostly hard work.)

Here are some other things that a self-published author might – note, I don’t say should – do with $399:

  • get a really good cover… for the next few books
  • get a really good editor… for the next few books
  • get a really good typesetter, proofreader, publicist… oh, you get the idea
  • get really nice gin for the people who do those things for you but refuse actual payment
  • buy Facebook ads from here to kingdom come
  • buy a couple of dozen copies of the book from Amazon to push it up the sales rankings
  • buy a couple of dozen copies of the book and leave them on honesty bookshelves and railway station bookswaps (I have long wanted to do this, just for the hell of it)
  • go on a research trip for the next book
  • any other ideas?

I mean, don’t take financial advice from me. I’ve just spent a chunk of my most recent writing income on a rainbow skirt, but I think I’ll get a good deal more joy out of that. It cost me $35.00.

And yes, that decimal point is in the right place.

 

 

Quality, revisited

DSCF8027

Another day on Twitter (it’s just about bearable these days if you use Tweetdeck, I find), another free and frank exchange of views on the question of whether it’s fair to make a principle of not reading self-published books.

In one sense, it’s a pointless question. One can’t, and shouldn’t, force people to read books that they don’t want to read, and their reasons for not wanting to read them are surely their own business. But I do want to take issue with the underlying assumption that self-published books are necessarily terrible.

(Mandy Rice-Davies voice: Well, she would say that, wouldn’t she?)

I would not deny for one moment that there are many appalling self-published books in the world. Earlier this week I read this thread from a professional editor with fascinated, delighted, horror. But, as I said when I shared it, there are plenty of traditionally published books that I’ve judged ‘Not bad, but could have done with a thorough edit’, and a few ‘This was so bad I couldn’t finish it’, as well as a lot more ‘Couldn’t be bothered’. The worst book I’ve read recently came from a small press. It was dire. It didn’t know which genre it was trying to be, and the worldbuilding was cowboy builder work. Needed a very thorough edit. Nor are the production values necessarily any better in conventional publishing. I still remember this horror with a certain sense of disbelief.

Conversely, the professionalism of self-published authors like Jane Davis and Ankaret Wells results in absorbing, enjoyable books that I look forward to reading and re-reading. And I know from my own experience that the choice to self-publish grants the great gift of control. I don’t have to put up with a terrible cover or a phoned-in edit. The power to improve things is mine. I make a point of never putting a book out until it’s as good as I can possibly get it. Quality is a subjective thing, of course. But it is not my judgement alone that puts my first novel on a par with some of the best of my generation; it was that of three authors whose writing I admire and who are big names in literature. It wasn’t lack of quality that meant I couldn’t get it published conventionally; it was the fact that there wasn’t a significant market for it. Too gay for the Christian market; too Christian for anything else. (I suppose I could have tried Darton Longman Todd, but then I don’t know what they’d have done with a novel with basically no religious content the next time round.)

Extrapolate from that, and one surmises that there are plenty of very good books out there that aren’t being published traditionally, and likely never will be, because the subject or the style just isn’t ‘in’ at the moment, or because the current trend is for debuts and the author didn’t hit the big time on their first attempt. I’d rather have the option of reading them. And I’d rather not be the one who puts that restriction on my reading material.

We all have our petty preferences, our likes and dislikes, both justified and unjustified. (Personally I’ve developed a violent hatred for that brushstroke calligraphy font that’s everywhere at the moment. I dare say that either my hatred or the fad will die off sooner or later.)

There are millions upon millions of books out there, and no human lifetime is going to be long enough to read all of them. We all have to find our own ways of prioritising. No matter what that is, we will inevitably miss something that we would have loved if we’d just given it a chance. Avoid books with predominantly pink covers, on the grounds that you don’t like chick lit? Miss out on the grittiness of Dorothy Koomson and the psychological insight of Marian Keyes. (I’m serious. I don’t think I’ve ever read an unreliable narrator that worked better for me.)

No. I choose books to read based on whether the subject matter interests me, what my friends are reading, and, above all, whether I like the writing style. And, as another Twitter self-publisher pointed out, that’s very easy to find out with a look inside, or, indeed, the ‘Look Inside’ feature.

If someone else’s chosen method of prioritsation is to exclude self-published works, then that’s up to them. But I will maintain for as long as I’m reading that it’s by no means a reliable filter for quality.

The Selfies Award: congratulations to Jane Davis

IMG_20190313_091823_500

Yesterday I attended the London Book Fair for the first time ever, thanks to BookBrunch, who provided free tickets to everyone on the Selfies Award shortlist. In the morning I spoke as part of a panel of four on the experience of self-publishing; then I met up with a friend and we went out along a very wet Kensington High Street to get some lunch and agree that the whole thing was very impressive but a bit overwhelming, and then I was back in time to wander around the fair a bit more before the awards ceremony.

The Selfies Award went to Jane Davis for Smash All The Windows (just under my arm in the picture), and it’s very well deserved. I can’t think of anyone who puts more work into making self-published books into a really high quality product, or, for that matter, anyone who does so much to support and encourage other authors in the field. Congratulations, Jane!

At the London Book Fair today

IMG_20190205_103931_693

I’m very excited (and a little bit apprehensive) to be attending the London Book Fair today. If you’re going, you can see me…

… talking about The Self-Publishing Experience, where I’ll be on a panel with some of the other authors on The Selfies shortlist, at 9.45am.

… discovering who’s won the first ever Selfies Award, at 4.30pm.

Both those events are in the Author HQ.

Outside those times, I’ll probably be wandering around bemusedly or looking for a cup of coffee.

March is for indies*

DSCF8114

Indieathon is back! This time it’s being organised by Ninja Book Box, who have a Youtube video about it here, and takes place over a week (8th-15th March) rather than a month. (Last time round I only found out about it halfway through March, so this is less of an adjustment than one might think.)

Anyway, I’m planning to join in, in a somewhat desultory way – by which I mean that I’ll be reading a little bit more than usual for a not-writing fortnight, and what I read will come from independent publishers and self-publishers, and will appear in due course as an #indiechallenge review.

The picture might look like one of those carefully curated TBR piles, but it’s really just a collection of books that I’ve been meaning to get around to reading that happened to be in an accessible place on the bookshelves. I need to check some of them to make sure that they really are independent publishers, and not just some imprint of one of the Big Five. And of course The Art of Lent is going to take me rather more than a week, otherwise there isn’t really much point to it.

Also in the middle of that week is the London Book Fair, which I will be attending courtesy of my Selfies Award shortlisting. The awards ceremony is in the afternoon of Tuesday 12th March, and I may also be appearing on a panel in the morning, talking about ‘the joys and perils of self-publishing’, in the morning. Both events are in the Author HQ.

 

*Now is probably not the moment to confess that I’ve always found the term ‘indie’ insufferably twee, is it? Oh well. There isn’t really anything else that covers ‘self-publishers, plus independent-but-not-necessarily-small-presses’, and ‘independent’ would sound insufferably pompous.

Three good things

IMG_20190205_103931_693

Well, after a winter that I’ll freely admit has been a bit of a slog in terms of writing, I’ve got three pieces of good news to share this week.

The Selfies

I’m very pleased to announce that A Spoke In The Wheel appears on the first ever shortlist for The Selfies Award. Self-publishing can get you second-guessing yourself and your work, and it’s such a delight to have the quality of your work recognised. Kudos to BookBrunch for establishing this award.

I’d also like to say how good it is to be part of the self-publishing community. All eight women on the shortlist seem to be as pleased for each other as they are for themselves! I’m really looking forward to meeting them at the awards ceremony.

Rainbow Bouquet

My short story Stronger Than Death appears in Rainbow Bouquet, a Valentine’s anthology from Manifold Press.

Cecily Strangways could never see ghosts – until she became one herself. Now, three hundred and fifty years later, she’s got to find some way of saving the family home from being turned into offices – and persuade the Grey Lady to help her.

The other stories in the anthology also look like a lot of fun! You can pre-order it at Amazon.co.uk, Amazon.com, and Smashwords.

Lesbian History Motif Podcast

You’ll have to wait a bit longer for this one, but I’ve also got a short story lined up for the Lesbian History Motif Podcast’s fiction series. Again, the rest of the table of contents looks very intriguing as well.

In The Mermaid, a farmer’s daughter on the treacherous south-west coast of the Isle of Wight finds unexpected treasure in a shipwreck. But someone else thinks it belongs to him…

2019 reading: #indiechallenge

indiechallenge

I remain committed to my principle of reading whatever the hell I feel like, but I liked the look of this challenge and I think it’s compatible with it. It will be interesting to see what the balance between books from small presses and self-published books ends up looking like. My instinct is that I’ll pay more attention to self-published books, for fear of being bitten by imprints; on the other hand, I’d like to put less business in the way of Amazon this year, and more in the way of independent bookshops.

I’ll be posting brief write-ups on this blog, but if I don’t have anything nice to say about a book I won’t say much at all.

There’s a bingo card:

indiechallengebingo

It would be very poor business practice not to point out that I have two books that are eligible for this challenge.

I can potentially help with the following squares:

  • A debut. Speak Its Name was my first book.
  • An award winner. It was the first ever self-published book shortlisted for the Betty Trask Prize, and that’s one of those lovely prizes where just being on the shortlist means you come away with an award.
  • Book that defies genre. Speak Its Name is LGBT university-set Barchester. A Spoke In The Wheel is… belated coming-of-age? Redemption? Maybe romance, if you look at it sideways? I tend to stick them both under ‘contemporary’ and dodge the question.
  • Out of your comfort zone. Depends on where your comfort zone lies, really. You may run screaming from Christian politics, and I really couldn’t blame you. I will say that a lot of reviews of A Spoke In The Wheel have led with ‘I know nothing about cycling, but…’
  • LGBTQIA. Both of my books feature queer characters in prominent roles (two bisexuals, a lesbian, and I’m still not sure about Gianna). If you want head-on engagement with the space where faith meets sexual orientation, try Speak Its Name. If you want a happy background f/f relationship, go for A Spoke In The Wheel.
  • Marginalised people. See LGBTQIA above, and there’s also Polly in A Spoke In The Wheel, who has a chronic illness.

I also have a short story in Supposed CrimesUpstaged: an anthology of queer women in the performing arts, which is:

  • an anthology

There’s only one of me, and I’m a woman, so you could make a case for my being both:

  • A Women’s Press

and:

  • a micro press

If you’ve never heard of me, I’m:

  • a new to you press

And, if you’re not from the UK, I’m:

  • an author from another country

Finally, of course, there’s the old favourite:

  • free square

 

Now to see what’s already on my bookshelves that will count towards the challenge… Whatever you’re intending to read, I hope 2019 has many good books in store for you!