The Review: As you might know, fantasy author Mark Lawrence put together the framework of the Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off (details here), and Bob Milne of Beauty In Ruins is the book blogger randomly assigned to evaluate Sand of Bone. Can I just say that any review whose opening sentence includes the phrase “quite astounding” is enough to make this writer do the Snoopy happy dance? Check it out for yourself–both the praise and the critique.
*quickly pulls out soapbox*
And I’ll reiterate my belief that connecting more trade-focused/trade-exclusive reviewers with quality self-published works is vital if we (writers and reviewers) want to remain relevant to the conversations readers–those marvelous beings who sustain us all–are having about books the trade industry might not known exist. If a self-published writer pulls down seven to eight thousand sales in pre-orders, and the majority of trade industry participants have no idea who that writer is–let alone that she exists!–that’s an issue to be considered, my darlings.
*slides soapbox back under the desk*
The Musing: In the past, I’ve discussed my approach to reading and analyzing reviews. In short, I believe the old advice of “Don’t read your reviews” is rather unhelpful because analyzing reviews help the writer identify what she can do better on the marketing front as well as the writing front. A writer who understands what her supporting readers love is a writer better able to reach similar readers. It’s with that in mind that I fold Milne’s review into my understanding of why people like and dislike all or part of my work.
More than one reviewer (though, thankfully, not the majority!) have mentioned the pacing flagged for them somewhere in the middle. Of those who specified why, it’s about an even split between basic training elements and palace intrigue elements. (Of those who didn’t specify, it’s quite possible everything felt slow to them. ) Yet folks on both sides say they are glad they pushed through that section to finish the novel, so… what gives?
On the surface, it can seem to confusing, even contradictory. Should I reduce the palace intrigue? Should I reduce the military/training aspects? Should I just let it be and assume readers who enjoy one but not the other will continue to “push through” to the end?
The answer is no, no, and no.
Truly, Sand of Bone’s final chapters would have delivered a completely different visceral package had either element been missing. The decisions made on the palace-intrigue side would carry completely different implications without the military and basic training elements. The consequences on the military side would be so much less important were it not for the palace intrigue.
As a reader and a writer, I want both elements in my stories. I’m as interested in what happens on the frontline as I am in what happens in the secret bunker. I want to know what the soldier and the general thinks, believes, fears, and contrives. So the solution isn’t to choose a “side,” but to improve my ability to write compelling chapters that unfailingly funnel the reader to turn to the next chapter regardless of the story elements.
Last Call: The Sand and Stone Newsletter will go out to subscribers the night of Wednesday, April 22. It’ll include your link to a free and easy download of Serpent Heart, the latest news and cover reveal for Breath of Stone, and an opportunity to give input on future projects. If you’d like to be part of it, sign up here.
Do reviews matter?
The answer depends on who you ask, how you define “reviews,” and what you mean by “matter.”
Ask a trade-published writer, and you’ll likely learn a review is first and foremost something written by a pro or semi-pro reviewer that will appear in an industry-supported or industry-centric publication. That sort of review is expected to (fingers crossed!) boost enough interest and offer enough praise to filter down to the general readership in time to impact sales in the first week (or month, on the outside) after publication.
Ask a self-published writer, and you’ll likely learn a review is first and foremost something written by a reader, directed at other readers, that will appear on the online retailer’s sales page for the book or (second best) on a site like Goodreads. That sort of review is expected to (fingers crossed!) boost enough interest and offer enough legitimacy to immediately impact the reader’s purchasing decision in the first week, the first month, the first year, and far beyond.
But no matter who you ask, the truthful answers all share one critical element:
We know visibility impacts sales. But visibility doesn’t create sales. That takes a connection between what the reader is looking for and how the reviewer expresses herself. Seemingly neutral words can make all the difference. Describing a novel as having “humor mixed with the action” gives the reader a different impression than “action-packed, madcap adventure.” I’d investigate the first one and ignore the second one, even though both phrases could accurately describe the same novel. I’m convinced the seemingly random impact of reviews on sales is due less to a positive or negative review and more to the language it uses.
For example, after its inclusion in StoryBundle, Sand of Bone began to be described by reviewers as military fantasy as well as dark fantasy. I haven’t noticed a big difference in sales, but I’ve noticed a sharp rise in reader engagement—the critical foundation to any writing career because an engaged readership is more likely to purchase your next book. The words a reviewer used connected me to a different segment of fantasy readers, and those connections were the best thing to come out of my StoryBundle participation. (The money certainly wasn’t bad, either! :) )
In Bloggers: Wind or Windsock?, author Mark Lawrence speaks to the question of how much blogger reviews might impact sales. (Truly, it’s difficult for the trade-published to know. They lack direct and immediate access to the majority of sales data. Me, I can immediately see the impact or lack thereof because my sales data is mine to access at any moment. But I digress.) He puts some numbers behind his observations, but still comes up with the answer of, “Maybe it helps! Fingers crossed!”
Might the numbers Lawrence uses in his blogpost be more indicative of reader engagement than reviewer connections? Maybe. For those who are prevented by a blogger’s or industry publication’s policy from accessing many review venues, the answer is, “Fingers crossed!”
And that’s why I wanted Sand of Bone to be part of the Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off. Not because I think there’s a straight line between trade-publishing and reviewers and immediate sales and fame, but because I know visibility does the workaday job of increasing the likelihood a reader who likes what I write will find me.
But there is a second reason, and it’s a tiny tad more altruistic: I want the artificial barriers between trade-published books and self-published books to be smudged by the Blog-Off.
I will never forget the puzzlement of a genre professional first hearing the name “Hugh Howey.” Howey had at the time sold more copies of a single book than most genre writers will sell in their lifetime, but those who prided themselves in knowing everything about the industry had no idea who he was. Me, I would have been troubled to discover I’d not known about the work and writers who were impacting—and changing—the industry I worked within. Alas, what I saw immediately following the revelation was a doubling-down on the separation that left many readers understanding they had to access different sources to find complete news.
As I discussed in Women, Reviews, and Self-Publishing, the lamenting of diversity in industry-centric forums that pointedly exclude all self-published works frustrate me to no end. A large number of writers who have been shut out of the industry due to the documented biases in the industry are now self-publishing. Writers who didn’t even want to deal with those controversies opted to go directly to self-publishing. Writers who were tired of dealing with abuse within the industry decided to self-publish.
So anything that connects industry-centric sources, reviewers, and publications with the growing self-publishing community is a win in my book. After all, readers are purchasing, enjoying, and discussing self-published works from writers many industry sources haven’t even heard of, and the number of readers discovering self-published works is growing. Certainly self-published writers will benefit from connecting with an audience that looks almost solely to industry-centric reviewers to provide information on worthwhile reads. But the reviewer will also benefit from expanding her reading experience, sharing her discoveries, and connecting with readers who are largely ignored by many of the industry’s supporting resources.
SFWA recently enacted its policy to expand membership qualifications to include self-publishing income. As a SFWA member who watched the internal and public debate on the matter, I knew there were far more self-publishing writers who’d meet the income guidelines than most trade-published members believed, but also suspected the desire of self-published writers to join the organization was vastly exaggerated by those same members. It turns out both of us were right and wrong. Yes, the flood of self-published applicants surprised existing members with their sales numbers. Yes, the flood of self-published applicants who wanted to be in SFWA surprised me.
But one of the things I most remember is Locus Magazine’s reporting that SFWA “favored loosening membership standards by more than six to one.”
First, there is a load of bias in the phrase, “loosening membership standards.” There is no byline for the item, so I don’t know who wrote it, but do indeed know the genre readership has moved beyond that person’s knowledge and understanding. Just as I’d rather get my tech advice from folks who can tell me about cutting edge computing rather than the TRS-80, I’d rather get my industry news from folks who understand publishing opportunities that have been around for quite a few years now.
Second, take note of the phrase, “six to one.” I’m no math person, but I’m fairly certain that translates to around 85% of SFWA’s voting membership who approved of admitted self-published writers under earning standards equal to trade-published writers. Isn’t 85% a fairly significant majority? Isn’t a significant majority a fair reflection of prevailing opinion?
So if readers are purchasing enough self-published genre books to make writing them lucrative for many authors, and genre writers want self-publishers acknowledged as professionals alongside trade-published writers, it makes sense that reviewers would want to be part of the transition, if not on its leading edge.
Believe me—I get that reviewing is time consuming. After all, I’m a single mother who homeschools her teenage son, runs two businesses (one of which includes teaching karate four to six days a week), and sill wants to write stories.
So what might help bridge the transition? What might help connect up-and-coming writers outside the industry to reviewers within it?
Things like the Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off.
Do I want Sand of Bone to fare well? Of course. Fuck yeah, I do. I want everyone to say it’s the best novel EVAH.
But in all honesty, I want the participating reviewers to enjoy many of the novels. I want them to be surprised by the stories and the production quality. I want them to be intrigued. I want them to be excited. I want them to be so pleased they’ll from now on look at good books versus bad books rather than self-published books versus trade-published books. I want their decisions to be difficult because of an abundance of good reads.
I would rather this open the door to increasing connections than be a token experience.
Yeah, I can be hopelessly unrealistic in my aspirations.
But, my darlings, this hope is totally reasonable.
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Item the First: The membership of SFWA has spoken and, by a vote of 6-to-1 in favor, has changed their governing by-laws to allow writers whose success comes from independent publishing to qualify for membership. Detailed procedural guidelines are being hammered out, and it looks like authors will be able to begin applying by March of this year.
Last summer, I had my own dilemma over whether I should join. And after I joined, I had my own disagreements with some of the organization’s choices, and I seriously expect I’ll have a couple more in the months and years ahead. Yet and still, I am so danged happy–relieved!–to see this vote go through. The support of the voting membership was loud and clear. I’ll be sticking around.
Anyone who has questions about it, feel free to ask. If I don’t know the answer, we’ll see if we can find someone who does. :)
Item the Second: The Indie Fantasy Bundle is entering its final week! At the bottom of this interview with Brad Beaulieu are links to all the other author interviews. In them you’ll find talk about worldbuilding, alchemy, international relations, history, windships, subversive genre-play, wish fulfillment and more. It’s a fascinating group of people, and their diverse works reflect that.
If you’ve already picked up the bundle, thank you so much for supporting the authors and the charities! It’s a wonderful thing, knowing so many new readers are finding and enjoying our books!
Item the Third: The sequel to Sand of Bone is still moving forward apace. Breath of Stone is currently slated for an April 2015 release. If you want to be on the early warning list, sign up now for the Sand and Stone newsletter!
Item the Last: Sand of Bone received a marvelous review from The Book Adventures! Happy writer! In the current market, when there are so many more choices–quality choices, mind you–it means a great deal to not only be noticed, but to know the story was enjoyed.
The publisher side of me is just as jazzed about her acknowledgement of the good production values. Reviews of traditionally published books wouldn't make mention of such as thing unless it was truly awful, but it's so important for reviewers to include at least a passing mention of good production in self-published works. We all know there is crap out there. Reviewers do all professional writers a service by acknowledging decent work.
(And if you haven't read that post of women and reviews I referenced above, I recommend taking a look if for no other reason than it'll link you to Marissa's comments on her own review policies.)
Second: Revisions of Sand of Bone are still progressing despite the distractions of spring fever. There is still one plotting issue I'm not certain how to fix. I'm letting it simmer in the background while working on other sections in the hope a solution will reveal itself. If a solution doesn't spring from my brow fully formed, I'm not certain what I'll do.
Third: It's official! I am curating a fantasy bundle for StoryBundle. I had such a positive experience with them on the author side, I'm excited to be working on the curating side as well. We've talked about tentatively slating the bundle for a fall release, and I've already begun to screen submissions. If you're interested in submitting something, cool! Later today I'll put up an overview of what I'm looking for and how to go about submitting.
And a couple personal things:
One: I booked Dev's flight to and transportation in Italy yesterday. I'm grateful EarthWatch provides solid briefing material on what to expect every step of the way since I haven't been overseas in the last twenty years, and have never been to Italy. The next step is to coordinate his travel from Indy to JFK. We might opt to drive out together, if I can pull the time away from the dojo, and have him fly back at the end of the trip. Yesterday was the first time I felt nervous about sending him off -- which I don't think is unreasonable, even though he'll be less than six months from eighteen. If anyone has any additional do this/not that advice, I'd love to hear it. And I'll likely beg for it again as the date creeps closer!
Two: And yesterday I wanted to call my friend Patricia just to tell her how much I miss her. It was one of those weird moments of the grieving process. I didn't forget I couldn't really call her; I wanted to call her specifically because I couldn't.
The most common reason given for rejecting self-published works from reviews, sight unseen, is that there are just too many of them to review. By the same token, there are far too many traditionally published novels to review as well, so there is that. I get it. Making decisions takes time, and it can be difficult to choose which reviews will best please the readership. Thus it’s easier to set aside a single publication method as not-reviewable.
That reasoning suffers from two downsides. First, the policy cuts out the work of many women whose writing didn’t gain approval from a relatively small audience of editors, but instead found a great audience among readers. It cuts out women who decided they didn’t want to seek such traditional approval, and chose instead to control and direct their own work. It turns away from women who have found success outside the system that the diversity-in-the-genre articles are ostensibly trying to impact.
Self-publishing is empowerment; cutting its existence from the landscape of writers’ options, while pushing for greater visibility of women writers, is rather counterproductive if inclusion is the actual goal.
Second, the policy ensures the publication will be missing out on the broadening conversation readers are having with a number of self-published writers. It won’t affect those readers much, since they’re obviously getting their information from a variety of sources. But there are readers who are entrenched in traditional publications and reviews, and will not venture far from the familiar. Those readers will be missing out on the greater conversation as well.
Again, making decisions takes time and can be difficult.
I knew when I self-published the sort of attitudes I’d be facing from traditionally-oriented reviewers, publications, bloggers, and even other writers. To act surprised that I’ve found the environment to be pretty close to what I expected would be disingenuous. I’m simply pointing out a contradiction that troubles me.
The review policies on self-published works will eventually change, likely when it becomes apparent that readers are having conversations the publications aren’t. And when it does change, we’ll be starting the conversation on the visibility of women all over again.
Until then, though, I’ll just keep watching the policies that state a support for women writers, as long as they’re not self-published women, because those self-published women should stay in their own playground.
Well. I guess that became a blog post after all.
While you’re here, tell me who your favorite self-published women writers are!
I've been reading and muchly enjoying Kate Elliott's Spiritwalker trilogy. I could go on and on about how much I enjoy the characters and their interactions, or how tickled I am to see the insides of a revolution amidst a realistically convoluted world. But one of the other things Elliott has done beautifully is measure her characters against the immutability of core morality—but never confuses morality with affiliation. With our own current political climate utterly polarized by affiliation, it's refreshing to watch characters find their allies, question their choices, and make externally-conflicting-but-internally-
Not too long ago, I finished Pen Pal by Francesca Forrest, recommend by Sherwood Smith. This, too, deals with revolutions and revolutionaries. One central character finds the strength she needs to endure and succeed by holding more and more tightly to narrowing set of goals. The other central character finds her strength though asking tough questions and adjusting her goals and perspectives. Neither is more right or wrong that the other. The challenges the characters face, and the settings in which they face them, require wildly different approaches even though their goals are essentially the same.
Between those two novels, I've tried repeatedly to sink into Ancillary Justice. It isn't that I haven't liked it—I've really been taken by the concepts, in fact—but I haven't found it as compelling in terms of story. I'll likely return to it after I finish Elliott's trilogy in the hope the story will catch me.
On the nonfiction side, I've been reading The Shriver Report: A Woman's Nation Pushes Back. It's as long and detailed as an epic novel, and I've been very pleased with the data used to back up the claims and proposals, but is too much for me to read and process all in one fell swoop. Even so, I'm repeatedly struck by how we continuously make programs and policies bigger and more complicated in an attempt to make life simpler and easier. It's essentially investing millions to teach people to do more with less, rather than investing thousands to ensure there is more to do more with. Forex, when I was living on a thousand dollars a month, I didn't need an expensive training program to help me land a new job. I needed six hundred dollars for new tires so I could drive to the job I was already trained to do. Alas, I qualified for a training program, but there wasn't even a "buy new tires" program to which I could apply.
Next up on nonfiction is How Can You Defend Those People? recommended by Nancy Jane Moore over at Book View Cafe. The work of criminal defense attorneys fascinates me. (In fact, when I looked into law school, it was with the goal of working as a defense attorney.)
And now, for a few links:
Hackschooling Makes Me Happy is a TEDx talk from teenager Logan LaPlante. I love what this kid is saying, and adore the "structure" of his education. If I had to do it all over again, I'd have homeschooled more fully along those lines. Really, it wasn't until this year that I completely let go of the curriculum-driven mindset. Would that I had dumped it two years ago!
Fit and Feminist on the neurosis that has permeated The Biggest Loser. I can't tell you how many folks I've seen who are so obsessed with the notion of "healthy weight" that they're driving themselves into illness to get it. An extra ten or twenty pounds is not nearly as unhealthy for a person as a sedentary life or a diet devoid of essential nutrients. And people look at me like I'm crazy when I tell them that, if they eat stuff like "healthy" granola and yogurts, they might as well chow down on a candy bar.
Over at Books by Women is an article on coming to writing with a theater background. I love and can relate to her discussion of using the tools of compelling theater to write compelling fiction. There is cool stuff there that made me think more about how I use my own theater background.
Lastly, there is The Destructive Power of Publishing. I've never been one to completely and utterly dismiss all that Big House publishing is and can be, but I think I've made it clear why Big House publishing is not for me. For more on that, check out Judith Tarr's series on Escaping Stockholm. This article speaks to those reasons.
I like getting my validation directly from readers. Every sale is an acceptance letter!
After hanging around writers in various states of publish for the last twenty-plus years, you’d think I’d have internalized the “Don’t read your reviews!” advice.
After hanging around me for not too long, you’d see I can be quietly and subversively hardheaded about certain pieces of advice.
I do indeed read my reviews (a simple process these days, since I don’t get that many). And I consider what they mean, individually and collectively, about how I’ve connected with readers.
That phrase—connected with readers—is the foundation of my review-reading mindset. It isn’t about judging “quality;” it is about understanding if what I produced matched the readers’ expectations.