Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Book Reviewing Pisses Me Off

I'm a pretty passionate advocate of reading in general and ebooks in particular. I've had a really hard time understanding why the publishing world has been so averse to embracing ebooks. They're easy to distribute, take up no physical space - and use about as much digital space as the average Word document. Since I got my Kindle about three years ago, I've bought more books than I have ever owned in my entire life up til now. That's a fairly typical jump in usage for most ereader owners. Why wouldn't the publishing industry want to encourage that?

Romantic Times showed me how painfully naive I've been. The atmosphere was a strange amalgamation of upholding traditional publishing while almost grudgingly admitting that there might be some merit to this digital publishing thing. I'd be in a panel where someone would talk about selling to book stores and shelving (the concept of which got a huge lolwut from me) and then in the next panel there'd be reference to how great it was to have no shelving to worry about. The former was said regretfully - oh, sorry, your book is too niche, we can't put it on a shelf. The latter was said sheepishly - oh, sorry, I sold a book that would never have gotten shelved in a real store. (Like Amazon's not a real store?)

However, the place where the most infuriating bullshit takes place is in book reviews.

You wrote a great book. The writing is solid, the characters are great, and the cliffhanger ending will have fans on the edge of their seats. You sold it to Tor and they put your ARC up on Netgalley, praised it to the skies via multiple social media outlets, and a bunch of reviewers grabbed it and reviewed it, all the while chatting about it on various social media. When that book comes out, it's had lots of publicity and people are excited to buy it because they've already heard all about it. Great!

You wrote a great book. The writing is solid, the characters are great, and the cliffhanger ending will have fans on the edge of their seats. You published it through a smaller press or even through Amazon. You want to get it reviewed but no one is interested. Everyone only accept submissions from the big six publishers and their imprints. You're likely to be mocked on social media if you ask multiple places because book blogging is pretty insular. ("Can you believe that chick emailed me?" "I know! She emailed me, too!  LOL!") You might find a few smaller bloggers who are interested, but they might not have a wide readership or maybe don't really specialize in reviews. Your best bet is to try to get encourage people to review the book on Goodreads or Amazon, but it's a losing battle. When that book comes out, almost no one who isn't related to you knows about it because it got no publicity. Lame.

I've always gotten the impression that this is how it was, but when I sat in on a panel with the biggest book bloggers, they spelled it out explicitly. One lady gave a delicate shudder when asked about small press or self pubs. I was hugely tired and hungover but that really made me sit up. None of the most influential romance/paranormal romance book bloggers will even consider looking at a book not published by a traditional publisher. Print book, ebook, whatever - the answer is no. What the fuck?

I attended the ebook author signing event at Romantic Times and it was packed to the gills with both writers and fans. Many of the authors there were with small press and indie publishers and people were flocking to them. I was blown away by just how much diversity there was. This is what's getting willfully ignored? And yet it was flourishing like the dandelions you just can't kill off in your grass no matter what you do. I'd be willing to bet only a minuscule percentage of those books had been reviewed by the big sites. Yet people obviously wanted them very much. So, why are they being almost aggressively shut out?

Let's back up for a minute and talk about shelving. What is shelving? It's the process of deciding what goes on bookstore shelves, where they put it, and how long it stays. Did you write a science fiction romance? Well, when a publisher is considering buying your book, they have to decide whether a bookstore will put it on the shelves. And if they do, will they put it in science fiction, which will stay on the shelf for 90 days, or will they shelve it as romance, which will last only 30 days?

Shelving means making hard decisions and categorizing mercilessly. When you have to categorize things very firmly, it also means that you can't really have a lot of variety. Things must conform to popular tropes or people won't want them and they have a very limited amount of time to find an audience. Books must be as easily digestible as possible to be easily salable.

Now, imagine that you don't have the limitations of shelving. You can write any damn thing you want. It's okay to experiment and break the rules and write something that no bookstore would ever put on a shelf anywhere. It doesn't have to be easily categorized or formulaic enough to sell a million copies and if you want to do something new - legitimately, scarily new - you totally can.

Okay, back to reviewing.  When a reviewer who only does the big six publishers opens a romance, they know precisely what they're getting. Every time. Oh, there might be a few variations but it's pretty static. This makes reviewing pretty easy because one woman who's been hurt before taming a rough and tumble cowboy is much like another, regardless of setting. I'm not dogging romance here, I'm just saying that books that have to be shelved have to be pretty standard fare.

When the shelves go away, so do a lot of limitations - and so does a standard reviewing practice. How do you review the book where a man who's also a dragon gets pregnant for the good of his race? You would have to really think about it. When you're used to everything being quantifiable, how do you get used to talking about something you've never seen before?

Right now, most book bloggers don't bother because they don't have to. But the day is swiftly approaching where if they won't review the new and unusual, someone else will, regardless of who publishes it. That will be a big leap forward for diversity and I can't wait to see it.
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  1. You just justified a lot of laziness on my part, LOL. I'm glad I didn't bother to do all the work of trying to get reviews. I think I'll just putz along and keep writing and not worrying about marketing.

    Amanda Hocking, though, has credited book bloggers with lots of her success. Do you think it's just the romance bloggers that are satisfied with only reviewing the traditionally published books? Or have they gotten more restrictive in the past year or so?

    You did call out the very best part about self-publishing, too. The freedom to write whatever I please is such a fun and powerful thing. A Gift of Thought, which is a little more than half-done, is...weird. If Ghosts was a little quirky, Thought is quirky squared. But, oh, it seriously entertains me. And I'm quite sure no traditional publisher would ever take a chance on it!

  2. I don't know who you consider the most influential book bloggers but the ones that influence me all cover ebooks (DearAuthor, ElisaRolle, TeddyPig etc). I don't expect Romantic Times etc to take them because that is not their model.

    And as for wanting to get shelved? That is still where a lot of money is. So I absolutely still seek that market as one of the many income stream now available. Doing the new does not necessitate dissing the old. Even Konrath signed up with a conventional publishing imprint when the deal was good.

  3. I loved reading this blog today! I just self-published my first novel last week and I know exactly what you are talking about. Granted, anyone can publish a book now and the market is flooded with some real baddies, but there are still a lot of talented writers out there who are getting over looked. When I mentioned I was writing a book to my local writing group they all were all extremely pleased, as soon as I said I was self-publishing it as an e-book, no lie, I was literally shunned. They pretty much don't give me the time of day, so I stopped attending their meetings.

    I've also ran into a local book blogger who was ecstatic to meet me and praised herself on how known in the blog reviewing community she was. Except, and she was very stern as her nose turned upward,ebooks, she refused to even look at them. So I asked her why and she rattled off a long list of hurtful things that angered me. The whole time she was talking I never once mentioned I was self-publishing, not until the very end. She was super interested in my book after I described it to her and offered to review it for me on her site, and I politely said: "Oh, but you just went out of your way describing every reason you couldn't." She looked at me puzzled and then I informed her I would be a self-published e-book author. She tried to back track immediately, but I just walked away.

    I have spent a lot of time and money on my book. Professional cover design, professional editor, and setting up a professional website. Why? Because I didn't want to just throw a have edited chunk of words up for sale. I love my characters and my story. I just wish the rest of the world would too. Sales haven't been hot, but I just released last week with Kindle Select. I've heard it can take a while for people to really discover it, so now I am trying to figure out every marketing angle I possibly can within my budget.

    I still love holding a real book, but I love the freedom and space my kindle provides. I strongly believe digital books are only going to get bigger over the next few years, so I will continue to write for that market.

    Thanks for this post. It really made my day! =)

  4. I think we're already starting to see this happen in some areas. Crime fiction has really taken off in terms of self-publishing and indie-publishing the last few years in part I think because of its roots in pulp fiction, for example. EBooks are turning into today's version of the dime store paperbacks of the fifties and sixties.

    And book bloggers are paying attention to it. Criminal-E does nothing but digital reviews and I'm seeing more and more thoughtful reviews of self-published work appearing. I think we'll see this even more, particularly as you see more genre blending.

    The more unconventional reviewers, the ones who are diverse and who won't deny ebooks, indie and self-published work of all genres and genre mixes are going to be the most successful. There's a niche here and people will fill it.

  5. I agree that we'll see more reviewers taking on eBooks (self or indie pub's). One thing that might help is actually the increase in trad pub authors also self publishing. I've been noticing in some of the forums I check, more and more self pub'd authors looking for more in depth editing of their work - I think this is a key part of getting self pub'd books viewed on a level alongside other pub'd works. I think, too, that the self pub'd authors that can stick with it and start building an audience (and not wig out over neg reviews), the more likely they'll be heard.

    I know it's a tough, circular problem - building an audience to get reviews to build an audience, but it does take persistence and honing your craft. And also presenting yourself well when you do reach out to reviewers. I've chatted with Wyndes a bit (for example) and she's always been great to talk to and very professional. Not everyone asking for reviews is like that, though. It's another learning process (and sometimes a painful one).