Thursday, November 15, 2012

Too Good to be True?

I got a very interesting, and frustrating, question the other day about self-published* books. The reader asked:

Last week was my birthday and my wife gave me a new kindle.  I was ecstatic and wanted to see what new stuff I could download and read.  I went to Amazon’s marketplace, searched under fiction and found a plethora of titles. I further searched under 'fantasy' to narrow the results and sorted them by 'most popular'. 

The first seven were all old tried and true favorites of mine; number eight, however, was a new book I'd never heard of. It had a nice cover and the summary sounded promising, so I went down to the reviews.  It had an average score of 4 out of 5 stars. Then I read the reviews and of the 120+ that it had, the vast majority gushed about how great the story was. I spent about an hour looking over reviews and only found one or two that didn't make the book sound like the greatest novel on earth, but even those said that it was a fair read and great for younger readers.

As it turned out, it was [horrible].  There were grammar mistakes, bad dialogue, non-existent story. I felt cheated and angry…. I bought this book instead of something [else], so that is at least one less sale that could have gone to a more deserving book.  

My question is, does this kind of under-handed marketing help or hurt more (in respect to the author and the industry in general)? The market is getting flooded with self-published works and most of them seem like they are okay but then something like this comes along and it really makes you think twice.   

This happens all the time, and has been happening for some time ( remember hearing about some weird bird book scam a few years ago). Not just with reviews; authors find ways to “beat the system” and bump their books up to #1 using technological glitches.

Some fabulous talent has been found from self-published work; true, maybe some fabulous unpolished talent, but authors who, nonetheless (and despite whatever quality) truly resonate with readers. Take Fifty Shades of Grey; ok, yeah, not the best written thing I’ve ever read, but you know what, I was totally addicted. My husband and I had friends over the weekend I decided to pick it up and read, and I was constantly sneaking away for ten minutes at a time just to read.

For these, I think self-publishing is wonderful. There is a known disconnect between what is bought by publishers and what readers will read, primarily because what publishers buy is based on what bookstores will stock and what they think they can sell, that self-publishing can help gap.

For the latter, however, authors who decide to take a more manipulative approach to the top, it’s just frustrating. I absolutely hate to hear that a reader is not only turned off from trying any more unknown authors, but wary of all e-books period, now, AND that a good debut author did lose a sale to something that was manipulated as great rather than really great.

To directly answer the question, YES, for all the reasons above and more, it DOES hurt more than it helps, and not just for the industry; an author can’t count on a fan base or repeat customers by forcing bad books to sound good, which means the author’s sales will eventually dry up. 

So, I thought I’d cobble together a list first, on how to help decide if the book is self-published or not:
  • Publisher is CreateSpace, Amazon Digital Services, iUniverse, PublishAmerica, Xilbris, or any other vanity press
  • Publishing house is owned by the author of the book (Google it if you’ve never heard of the publisher)

And what would give me pause before purchasing a “too good to be true?” book (other fab posts on it here and here):
  •  The 1-2 star reviews complain about grammatical errors and lots of typos
  • There are very FEW bad reviews, and the bad reviews there are are very mild (books are so subjective, no way is a book that perfect)
  • The 4-5 star reviews indicate that the author has paid for good reviews (or, alternately, solicited ONLY good reviews – it is ok to give away books for review or hold contests, but not ok to only ask for good reviews)
  • The 4-5 star reviews themselves are full of typos and grammatical errors, or sound like the same person wrote them, and are way too overly gushing
  • There’s a mention of “for the price, it’s not half bad” (I’d want to hear: I expected this to be ok for the price, but it blew me away!)
  • There are a ZILLION reviews, most of them fabulous, and yet it isn’t within the top #500 in Kindle Paid or top #100,000 in books
  • A zillion reviews, period (way too many gushing reviews is pretty suspect)

Definitely not fool-proof, but if you’re just not sure, and it’s more than you’re willing to pay, don’t buy it. I really don’t want to discourage trying on new authors, though, and so worst case scenario, you give it a shot and you’re out a dollar.

Regardless of the outcome, whether a book is falsely touted or not, I strongly encourage you all to leave honest reviews – even more so, of course, if you do end up loving the book!

*After posting this, I can understand how this would appear to be an attack on self-publishing, which was not my intent. Any author, whether traditionally published or not, can use a manipulative approach to the top, and it's those authors, not any method of publication, I wanted to caution readers to. 


  1. Read the sample, people... After a while you will develop an eye for identifying promising books.

  2. Seconding Anna's recommendation. Just like agents flipping to the sample pages to see if they live up to the query, readers should flip open a book (even an ebook) to see if it lives up to the hype. I can usually tell within a couple of pages whether a a book is going to work for me.

    I, personally, only ever read bad reviews of any book I intend to buy but am on the fence about. If the flaws described sound like "Yeah, I can live with that" type items, I go for it. If there *aren't* any bad reviews, well, that's highly suspect.

  3. I can go either way on this. I've regretted hyped published books that I spent a lot on, and indie pubs that I spent less on. My largest regret is never the money, but the time I spend on the novel. The more I read indie, though, I'm seeing more polished pages, far less typos and grammatical errors. And the writing is (usually) great. I have never heard of the technical glitch to get your book higher in the rankings, though I don't doubt it exists. But I certainly can't imagine my world without these amazing indie authors I've come across. To think they would've never been published had it not been for this route makes me sad. My personal opinion is that there is good and bad, readable and unreadable, whether published or indie. And I agree - read the sample.

  4. Yep, read the sample. Most readers don't care who the publisher is (myself included). Ninety percent of what I read now are indie books because they are reasonably priced, I want to support authors of all stripes, and I read the sample to decide if I like the author's voice and storytelling prowess. It's as simple as that.

  5. I have to say, I find this post both frustrating and so sweeping in its generalities that it made me laugh.

    Full disclosure, before my rant begins, and so that readers of this blog don't dismiss me as just another self-published author who doesn't know the way things really work: I am a former client of Natalie's. We worked together on one of my historical novels, as well as the partial manuscript for another, and when my books did not sell to a publisher I was eventually handed off to another agent.

    Over the course of the ensuing years, I decided to self-publish my books instead, and that has been the best choice I could possibly have made, as now I am earning a respectable income from them...enough, in fact, to quit my day job and write full-time, which I will be doing soon. Had Natalie sold my book to a publisher, the likeliest outcome would have been that I would have made between $5000 and $20,000 as an advance (if I'd been lucky), 15% of which would have gone to her. It would have been paid out in thirds according to the standard contract, and my book would only now, in the winter of 2012, been appearing in bookstores. Would it have sold enough to earn out its advance? Who knows; that would have been a gamble. All I can say for sure is that I have already earned more by self-publishing this book than I would have earned with the rosiest advance, and I am on the verge of the full-time writing career I have always wanted.

    MY novel has mostly 4- and 5-star reviews, and only a couple of negative reviews. Because it's in a highly competitive category, it seldom climbs up into a high sales rank (though it did spend a few months in the Top 100 lists this summer). According to Natalie's guidelines, my book is not worth your time -- its overwhelming majority of positive reviews, the mild nature of its few bad reviews, and the fact that it hovers somewhere around 20,000 in the sales rank means that this book must be just another terrible piece of self-published crap. Bear in mind that we are speaking of the very same book that prompted Natalie to offer me representation three years ago -- the same book she was so enthusiastic about -- the same book she had "nothing but the highest expectations" for. Nothing has changed about my book since Natalie and I finished the revisions we did together and declared it good enough to sell.

    I mean no disrespect to Natalie -- she was a hard-working and enthusiastic agent, and I appreciated the work she put into my book enough to thank her in the acknowledgements. However, bear in mind that Natalie has a vested interest in shooing readers away from independently published books and toward represented books. More to the point, she has a vested interest in keeping writers onto the traditional path and away from doing it on their own. All agents do. That's not a flaw in Natalie -- she's still the same hard-working, cheerful, insightful agent she was three years ago. I've run my own businesses before. I understand the need to drive business toward one's own model. I don't hold it against her: I only want to point out the brutal truth of the publishing industry. And here it is:

  6. (continued...long; sorry. can you tell I feel strongly about this?)

    All good books don't get published traditionally. I once thought they did, too. I once thought, like so many writers do, because that's all they've been told (often by industry professionals with a vested interest in driving content providers -- that is, writers -- toward their business model), that all I had to do was write a really good book and the rest would fall into place, sooner or later.

    But the reality of books is this: a lot of excellent books are passed over by the industry, for reasons a reasonable person can't fathom, and never will be able to fathom, and wondering why will only drive a person crazy. The reality is that it takes luck more than anything else, and no one can control or predict when lightning will strike. The reality is that the Kindle changed everything about the book world, forever, and every day more and more excellent authors with excellent books are turning their backs on traditional publishing.

    The old ways of viewing the book world simply do not apply anymore. It's not enough to declare that all self-published stuff is de facto bad, or else it wouldn't be self-published. It's not enough to lay out guidelines for how to find a good book and declare that books which have many more positive than negative reviews MUST be gaming the system somehow (because clearly if a book was that good it would have been picked up by a publisher, right? Especially if it had once been agent-represented?) Sometimes the best books aren't traditionally published. That's the world we live in now. And if you listen to people who tell you to blow them off because they're self-published and they have good reviews, you are going to miss out on some very good reads...reads priced much lower, by the way, than anything you'll find from a traditional publisher.

    Seems a far easier way to tell whether a book is worth your time is to read the sample, as Cheri pointed out. They all come with a sample you can peruse for free. Sure, check out the reviews. They may help you decide. Nothing will clue you in that a book is poorly written quite so quickly as reading the sample, though. Read the sample on EVERY book you consider purchasing, unless you already know you'll love that author's work, whether it's traditionally published or self-published. I've read some screaming atrocities from big publishing houses that have made me yearn to hold a self-published book in my hands.

    But acknowledge, readers, that the world changed very fast over the past three or four years. We are no longer constrained by what publishers will offer us. There is more variety and more excitement in books than there ever was before, and all it takes to find a good one is reading that sample. If you pooh-pooh self-published works just because reviews indicate that they're good, or just because they're self-published, then the loss is your own.

    Cheri, thank you for supporting independent authors, and for being frank about your reasons for doing so. I appreciate it.

    1. Libbie- it is people like you who give hope to people like me!! I have been trying to get represented by an agent for far too long and am ready to make that leap into the self publishing world!
      and yes, there are some out there who publish books that are SO not ready to be published or are just... not good at all. But i am an AVID supporter of ALL authors, especially indie authors who do it on their own without the help of an agent or publishing company!!
      dont get me wrong, it will always be my dream to be a traditionally published author, but I have NOTHING against indie authors!
      and people like you- who have done it, and are making enough to actually be a full time writer, you give you me hope that I can do it too!!
      GREAT job to you! Mad props for doing so well! If you ever need help promoting, Im a book blogger too, so let me know! :)

      Again- great job and i wish you all the luck in the world on your future endeavors!

  7. Libby, thank you for your feedback; I shouldn’t, but I want, to clarify that it isn’t true you were just handed off to another agent when your book didn’t sell. I left the agency we worked together at, and when I left, we did discuss the possibility of you moving with me, however, you told me you were venturing into areas that I do not represent and we both agreed it would be best for you to stay at the old agency. I am very happy to hear of your success.

    I’m noticing that my post has turned into a debate on the virtues of self vs. traditionally published books, which was not my intention. I wanted to answer a reader’s question on manipulated reviews, and some advice on how to avoid these books. I purposefully avoided saying that positive reviews MUST indicate they are fake, and also purposefully ended my post by saying my thoughts (things that would give me pause, not things I’m suggesting automatically point to a waste of time) were not fool-proof, and I in no way wanted to discourage readers from trying new (and self-published) authors. But I can see how my approach could come off as an attack on self-publishing, for which I’m sorry.

    I greatly appreciated the added posts on reading the sample (duh) and the point that even a hyped traditionally published book can be disappointing, because certainly any author, whether traditionally published or not, can use a manipulative approach to the top, and it’s those authors, not any method of publication, I wanted to caution readers to.

  8. I didn't see any harm in your post. I enjoy both self-pub books and trad-pub books; however, there are SO many BAD self-pubbed books (some I've purchased that seemed good but were awful after sample pages, like they cleaned those up and left the rest for dead) that it does sour the pot for the ones that are good (I wish there was some sort of filter). You were just offering information, which is appreciated! And obviously it doesn't mean every book falls this way--you were just saying to consider it. Which is always a smart thing to do.

  9. Yes, Vivi...there are some real bombs out there! As independent books become more a part of the scene, I think more useful ways of weeding out the truly awful from the acceptable and great stuff will emerge, but the book world is still in a transition there. Goodreads and similar sites that encourage lots of discussion of books help me find good indie books to read (or check an indie title to get a wider range of opinion than you'll usually find on Amazon), and of course book blogs are excellent for this as well. For now those are the best tools we have, I think, but I'm sure more will develop. Self-publishing as a venue for really good books has only been "a thing" for about three years now. It will take some time for the good-book/bad-book filtering to catch up.

  10. You have excellent points and I agree that self-pub will suffer from dopey reviews given as a marketing tool. Too bad so many good books are thrown into the same category.

    I crosscheck GoodReads with Amazon as a safeguard since the reviews make it impossible to judge a book. Not only are comments used as marketing but also as a venue to spout venom against an author. Note the vitriol against Killing Kennedy. Some didn't even read the book but feel they can slam the author via the book. Honest reviews are rare and far between it seems.

  11. Natalie, There's one thing I've noticed about Amazon Kindle. I have books published there, they seem soft to me now, but they're interesting and fun. I don't know how to hype them up to get looked at but the thing about Kindle is the refund. I've had books 'sold', credited to my account, then a week later they were 'returned' and the money refunded. But I do agree with the idea of downloading or reading the sample section of a book before buying it. I've rarely taken a reviewer's advice about a book or movie in the last 20 years, I read a section of a book and if it hits me, I'll get it. How can anyone know what your taste is but you?
    Somehow I doubt that any filtering will catch up to the flood of ebooks being generated. I have a few fans but I write for fun and for those... uh... four people... who like my stories. I published the books so someone might stumble over them as I write more.

  12. Hi, J.E. -- by filtering I am referring to more social sites like Goodreads, or other similar social-interaction hubs that haven't come along yet (who knows what the future holds on THE INNNNNTERNET!! ;) ). If you haven't already checked out Goodreads, you should. It's the best way I know of to see what lots of other people think of a given book. It typically has far more reviews per book than Amazon has, and while Amazon allows discussion of reviews in its comments section, the discussions on Goodreads are usually more in-depth and more informative. It's a handy tool for authors, but I find it much more useful as a tool for readers.

    More and more reliable means of sorting through the very large number of self-published stuff will come along. The community of writers and readers won't have any choice but to make one, because the publishing industry is still dragging along in the past with slow paychecks, low royalties, and long, long delays in getting books to readers. Not to mention their backward-thinking pricing of ebooks and their collusion fiascos. Self-publishing is often a much better deal for writers and, as a result, for readers, who have far greater variety, immediate distribution, and lower prices for equal or greater quality (if you know where to look.) A system that favors the consumer so much isn't going anywhere, in spite of the current frustrations with sifting through the bad stuff to find the good stuff.

    I don't think trade publishing is going anywhere in my lifetime, either...but self-pub is a much bigger and more important player than I think anybody predicted it would be, and it's only going to gain ground. Readers and writers are smart people. They've only had three years to face the big wave of indie books -- more review blogs and communities won't be far behind. :)

  13. I'm an Indie author with three books under my belt. Before the books go out they are edited and proof read to eliminate (as much as possible) any of the more annoying mistakes. Thereafter it''s up to the public. I won't say I enjoy negative feedback but it does help me decide if it's something I need to look at in future or just someone who enjoys giving negative reviews ( and yes, there are plenty of those).
    Normally I have quite good reviews and they're given without payment or prompting and certainly not written by me or family.
    My best advice is, I always give a sample of my books so read them to see if you want to spend your cash. If so, enjoy.

  14. I agree with you hear sometimes one wonders that whether marketing has more good than bad to us... I was searching for online assignment writing service and there were many sites promising good material but I was dissapointed to see the results :(