What makes a great review?

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I need to say first that I really value reviews, and appreciate the effort and commitment of those who write them. I’ve been thinking a lot about them lately, prompted by my first experience of a ‘blog tour’, and also by a passing comment from a friend who wanted to mention my books on his new website. ‘Have you got any reviews we could take extracts from?’ he asked. ‘Only Amazon or bloggers’ reviews,’ I said, explaining that despite all my efforts over the years, I haven’t managed to get reviews of any of my six books in the local or national press. His reply was that Amazon or blogging reviews ‘didn’t count’ in his traditional view of publishing. Was he right, I wondered? I sent some of my reviews anyway, and choosing which ones to send got me thinking about what makes a good review.

Let’s be very clear, by ‘good’ I don’t necessarily mean ‘favourable’. Some of my books are ‘better’ than others, in my own opinion. Obviously, I try to do the best I can with each book I write, but sometimes – usually through the need to meet artificial targets or deadlines – there are compromises, or one edit too few, or a scene that is left in even though it doesn’t really add to the story, or a missed chance to illuminate a character through some telling. If a reviewer spots a specific shortfall, that’s a good review, so long as the specific positives are mentioned as well.

So, there’s the first criterion for quality in a review – specificity. The vaguer the wording, the less satisfactory for me as the writer, and for those who might use the review to decide what they want to read. This presupposes that a good reviewer has read the book with care, not just skimmed it. If a review uses the back cover blurb word for word, and without quotation marks, I’m left wondering whether they read much further.

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The second criterion for a review’s quality, in my view, is that it describes and analyses the work rather than just ‘evaluates’ it. Saying the book is ‘good’ or ‘weak’ doesn’t tell us anything: the question is why is it so. Sometimes reviewers tell us that they ‘like’ or ‘don’t like’ a character, but don’t explain why. It’s the explanation not the judgement that helps the readers understand what’s going on, and whether they want to read the book for themselves. And some characters can be wonderful to read about, even though we might not like them much as people: sinners are often more interesting than saints.

The third criterion would probably be that the reader gets enough detail about the content to whet their appetite, but not so much that they don’t have to read the book at all! I’m not a member of a book group, but friends who are have confessed from time to time that reading a very detailed review will help them pretend that they’ve read the book. The review becomes the ‘potted version’ of the real thing, and I’m not sure that’s really helpful.

From all this, you won’t be surprised to discover that I don’t have much time for the ‘star rating’ system which seems to be ubiquitous. Yes, it’s quick, and you can use a crude number rating to filter books in or out of consideration. But what does it really mean, when you get down to it? I spent my whole working life in education on issues of ‘assessment and evaluation’ and the main thing I learned was that one single ‘number’ cannot represent a task or achievement of any complexity, such as a book. There are frequently questions of ‘subjectivity’: one reviewer’s four stars could be about the same as another’s five stars, or another’s three. Even if the reviewer uses a process of breaking down the criteria into separate ratings, one point either way can tip the total one way or the other, making the final summary number inaccurate as well as meaningless.

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Numbers are often assumed to be accurate than words, but that’s a false assumption. The star system is crude, simplistic, and riddled with potential error.The only thing going for it is speed, and the potential for comparability, but what’s the point of comparing information which is itself flawed?

Writing a high quality review is a time-consuming and demanding task. If reviewers are to be successful, they need to be paid, and not just fobbed off with a free book. And the quicker we see the back of the overall star rating system, the better.

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My new book arrives: how does it feel?

BURNiNG_SECRETS_AW.inddI’m ruthless with my Twitter feed, regularly and systematically blocking anything I don’t want and refusing to ‘follow back’ until I’ve checked the person out. Too many ‘followers’ are just fishing for reciprocation, and I’m not interested. As a consequence, my Twitter line includes almost exclusively people involved either in books and publishing, or Cumbria and the Lake District, or any combination of those.Wasdale

 

In a sense those two threads dominate my thinking about my books and writing. I’m passionately interested in West Cumbria, an area I have loved all my life and where I’ve lived for the past decade and more. Part of my determination to begin writing fiction at a relatively advanced age stemmed from the need to write about this place and its history and people.

That’s the upside: the downside is that I’ve never been sure about the ‘genre’ of my writing. Which comes first for me – setting, characters, or plot? In the Jessie Whelan trilogy ‘Between the Mountains and the Sea’ the priority was clearly setting and characters. The main external dramas were provided by real events, and the internal dramas arose from the interaction among fictional characters, and between them and their surroundings, both place and time. When I decided to have a go at crime fiction, I realised that balance of those aspects would have to change, and that plot would have to be more important, but I don’t believe I’ve truly made that shift. Setting and characters still dominate, and details of the plot are much harder for me.

Maybe it’s that ambivalence about what my writing is really about that has made me less enthusiastic about the new novel than I should be. All my writerly Twitter acquaintances speak of the arrival of a new book from the printers with such excitement, much like the arrival of a new baby – unalloyed positive feeling. Or at least that’s how it appears. There are photos of piles of books waiting to be signed, glamorous launch events and brimming champagne flutes.pexels-photo.jpg

For me, the new book’s arrival last week was just another stage in the long tedious process of self-publishing which has felt endless and stressful, even though the whole schedule has worked without a hitch. I suspect that part of my anxiety about it is a hangover from the anxiety about the serious accident I suffered almost a year ago when the new book was in its very early stages, too late to be abandoned but too early to see the light at the end of the tunnel. For a while I couldn’t walk, or drive, or even type without pain. It would have been good to just relax into recovery but the unfinished book haunted and taunted me, and kept me awake. I resented it, and maybe I still do.

The arrival of a new book could feel like a milestone, and a relief, but it doesn’t, because now the real work starts of trying to sell the damn thing. Promotion requires unceasing optimism and enthusiasm and for me those are both in short supply at present. Should I be honest and admit that the book felt rushed? The background details of the Foot and Mouth outbreak in Cumbria in 2001 are rich, authentic and moving, but one of the characters is unconvincing and the plot allows authenticity to triumph over a more eventful – and satisfying? – ending. I’m always my own harshest critic, which is unhelpful at this stage.

So, for various reasons, when the books arrived I wasn’t overwhelmed with love for a much-loved child after a difficult pregnancy. It was more like ‘Here we go again. And they’re not going to like the ending. And do I really want to do this all over again in another year or so? And I’m supposed to be retired.’ Not very positive is it? Maybe I just need to pull myself together and stop whingeing.

Are eBook prices far too low?

I had an interesting exchange recently with an indie publisher who’s been in the trade for many years and seen it all. This is what he said on the issue of eBook prices. “Things are tough for every indie publisher – readers seem to havebusiness-money-pink-coins.jpg decided that the price point for eBooks is 0.99 or free and as you know there are very small margins involved at that level”. Oh yes, the margins are very small indeed.

Self-publishing writers like me are attracted to eBooks for all sorts of reasons. The upfront costs are minimal compared with publishing ‘real’ books; you don’t have to decide how many to produce, balancing unit costs and the risk of coping with unsold stock; and there are no issues around storage. Cheap and easy, or so it appears.

But, if you want to produce an ebook to an acceptable standard, you may want help with editing, and proofreading, and the cover. All those need to be paid for, and the costs will far outweigh the cost of conversion to eBook format. And if you want people to buy your book, in whatever format, you will need to publicise and promote it. Any potential reader first needs to know that your book exists, and believe that they want to spend some money on it. Promotion takes effort and energy and can be frustrating, as you realise that ‘professional’ reviews are unachievable, the market is saturated, local media don’t care that much, and advertising is expensive.

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The promotional strategy that takes least effort is simply to lower the price, and here’s where the problem starts that all of us are currently facing. If a sufficient proportion authors are prepared to sell their work for £1 or $1, or even give it away to manipulate the ‘best-seller’ lists, how can we then persuade readers to pay a proper price, for a product that represents many many hours or work? It makes no sense to under-price, and thereby under-value, a book. It cheapens the writing process, and makes me – for one – feel like a mug.

 

If selling for these ludicrous prices were a rarity, and a temporary way to attract buyers, fair enough. But the ‘bargain’ price has now become the ‘standard’ price and the value of our work as writers appears to be permanently pexels-photo-266174.jpegdebased.

I would love to increase my ebook sales, but right now I’m simply not prepared to reduce the price to less than a cup of tea. Am I being foolish? Maybe, but I value my self-respect.

What’s the story on ‘quotes’ for book covers?

With the ms of the new book with the copy editor, I’m thinking ahead to the upcoming stages of the book’s production. I’ll be using the same cover designer as on the previous five novels, and have a brilliant photo image already bought and paid for: now I’m wondering about the ‘back cover blurb’ so that the designer can get started.

All of which brings me to the business of finding a ‘quote’ ie. a brief endorsement of either the book, or me as the author, taken directly from a credible source who is willing and able to provide a phrase or two and put their name to them. Amazon readers’ reviews don’t cut it, I’m sorry to say. I’ve used ‘quotes’ on only two of my previous books: the first, on the reprint of ‘A Good Liar’, was hardly effusive, but its source was impeccable in Margaret Forster, an icon of the literary world and a famous Cumbrian. She told me when we started to correspond that she didn’t normally do any kind of endorsements, and I was both surprised and delighted when she agreed to this…..

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‘Historical background is convincing, and an excellent ending’ 

CRUEL_TIDE COVER front

‘A thrilling tale of corruption and exploitation’

The second was from William Ryan, a very successful historical fiction writer, for my first crime novel ‘Cruel Tide’. I’d met him on a course and appealed to him directly, not through his editor or agent, and again was very pleased when he agreed. I’ve not managed – until now – to get a ‘quote’ on any of my other books, but that’s not through lack of effort.

There appears to be some unwritten protocols and other barriers that stand in the way. First, it’s very hard to find a way of approaching an author to ask if they would be willing. I’ve recently been reprimanded because the approach wasn’t made indirectly by my editor. If I had an agent, the approach could presumably have been made that way. Authors don’t widely share their email addresses, understandably, and it is not in the interests of an editor, agent or publisher to have their precious ‘client/commodity’ distracted by a gesture of support to another author, especially – horror! – a self-published one.

Secondly, authors who are successful enough that their name counts for something are obviously going to be very busy people. A recent approach to one was rebuffed by a litany of the pressures that the person was currently having to deal with, which meant that there couldn’t possibly be time to glance through a proffered manuscript and offer a few words. I had used the phrase ‘a quick read’, which was been batted back to me as if it denoted a lack of respect.

The third possible reason for my relative lack of success in my efforts has been the suspicion that authors are asked (or expected?) by their agents and/or publishers to offer quotes only to writers from the same ‘stable’ as themselves. Heaps of ‘quotes’ appear routinely in newly published books, inside as well as on covers: presumably the people who provide them have been able to find the time for the ‘quick read’ or whatever it takes to enable a few phrases to be offered for this purpose. There are ‘insiders’ who scratch each others’ backs in this aspect of publishing, and there are ‘outsiders’ like me, and possibly some of you. As a self-publishing author of what is still known as ‘genre fiction’, I’m accustomed to being treated as some kind of low life, but it still rankles occasionally.

In my darker moments I wonder if this reciprocal endorsement accounts for the stellar ‘quotes’ that sometimes appear on the covers of books that are really not that good, or not up to the usual standards of the author. In my even darker moments I wonder how some of the books on the shelves ever got published at all without apparently being subject to a properly critical edit. Could it be that once your name is known and will sell a book on its own, you can get away with mediocrity?

On a more positive note, my latest book will have a quote on the cover from a well-respected writer in the crime fiction business. It will be what’s known as a ‘generic’ quote, speaking to my books as a whole rather than the new one in particular, and the person providing it – for which I’m very grateful – is someone I happen to know a little from sharing a book festival panel. We’d met and talked, and I could approach him directly without offence. I did, asked politely, and he agreed. Hurray.

The positive power of feedback

feedbackAll my plans for meeting readers at the Lake District shows this summer went west the moment I fell down the stairs in mid-August and emerged with a ruptured Achilles tendon and damaged shoulder ligaments. Couldn’t walk for a while, couldn’t drive, couldn’t lift or carry books, couldn’t even use a keyboard without pain and handwriting was no better. What a mess!

Of course I was lucky, I could have died or sustained what are euphemistically called ‘life-changing’ injuries. As it was I was deprived of my precious independence for a while, but gradually I’ve got back to a semblance of normality and am well into the first draft of the new novel now, with every chance of getting the book to my editor by the agreed date of the end of January.

But during the past few months the lack of contact with readers has taken its toll.

I guess all writers doubt themselves, unless and until they’re clearly successful and maybe even then. However good your original idea, and however happy you may be with the plan in your head or on paper, there comes a point somewhere in the middle of the first draft when you wonder why on earth you’re doing devoting all your spare time to this project, and whether it’ll be worth it.

At that stage, it’s really helpful to have a way of refreshing your self-confidence, – especially that part of your self-esteem particularly linked to your writing. And that’s what’s been missing, because I simply couldn’t reach readers in person for quite a while.

Today was a chance to put this right. It meant a three hour return drive, and not long to talk with quite a small group, but I did so enjoy it. And when some of them began to talk about reading my books, I realised yet again how much I need that feedback.

One of the people asked me, ‘Do readers write to you, or let you know their reaction to your books?’ And the answer to that was ‘No, not much, and I wish they would!’ It’s hard to know how many people out there have read my stuff. Once the books have gone to the distributors and the shops they are beyond my view. I know that books get handed around : sometimes readers tell me with pride how many people they’ve lent my books to! I don’t know how many people get copies from the library. Simone-Forti-1024x576Nor do I know whether readers are more forthcoming with feedback for other writer’s books. I’m not myself, I realise. I may love a book, talk about it, delay finishing it because I’m enjoying it so much. But I never think of telling Claire Tomalin, or Hilary Mantel, or Ann Cleeves, or Andrea Levy how much I love their work, and why.

And there is another problem, of the relative isolation of many self-published authors like me. We rarely get reviews, or awards, or mention in the conversations of the regular book world. I could do something about this, I know. I could read and respond to more blogs and hope that the effort is reciprocated. I could actively seek more reviews on Amazon, although very few of my sales come through that route. I could be more active in the various writers’ networks. But time spent on all that seems like time off-task. My priority as a writer is to write.

As my life returns to normal I’ll probably get out more, and meet more of the people who read my stuff. Those direct conversations are obviously important to me, and I’ve been missing them.

 

 

How do we measure ‘success’?

I spent decades of my professional life working with schools and education systems on how they find out how well they’re doing: what information to gather, how to do so, and how to use the information so that it improves their ‘performance’ rather than just measures it. As the old saying goes, ‘weighing the pig doesn’t make it grow.’quote-Charlie-Brown-sometimes-i-lie-awake-at-night-and-3-254664

Many of my Twitter contacts are educators, from all around the world, and these same concerns never seem to fade. All of us accept that as educators we should be accountable for the public money we spend and for the futures of our students that we share with their families. The issue has never been ‘accountability’: it’s always been accountability to whom, for what, and what information is pertinent to these purposes.

The key first step is to define what constitutes success in our classrooms, schools and systems. Only after that can we decide what information will relate to and reveal these important outcomes. All sorts of information can be useful, including numerical data, so long as the numbers accurately represent something of agreed value. The problem is that the quick and ‘manageable’ tests commonly used as the most important measure are seriously flawed, capable only of representing a fraction of the outcomes that we all agree to be important in preparing our children for their future lives. These future lives are to be lived in the 21st century, not the 19th.

Of course, our young people need to be literate and numerate, but they also essentially need to be resourceful, flexible, digitally confident, and collaborative if they are to thrive as individuals. If the communities and societies they inhabit are to be successful, our people also need to be aware and respectful of others, thoughtful, optimistic – the list goes on, influenced by one’s view of the world.

Unfortunately, in England, our students and their schools face a barrage of measurement that hardly scratches the surface of the information we really need. Students’ worth can be calibrated on their performance in these inadequate assessments, and – as we have seen this week – those students whose estimated future performance might adversely affect the school’s overall ‘scores’ can be asked to leave. This perversion of true educative values has been going on for years, and this week’s headlines have been no surprise to many of us.

There is much more to say about all this, but for now I want to make a link to what can be defined as a ‘successful’ book, or author. Yes, of course ‘success’ can be defined simply in sales which are gratifyingly easy to count, but even that number doesn’t equate to the number of people who actually read the book, finding it in a library or lent by a friend. Other quantifiable measures might be the number of five-star reviews on Amazon, but you don’t have to look hard to find the flaws there.Screen-Shot-2017-03-28-at-16.48.56

Professional reviews? Questionable indicators of quality, in terms of which books are chosen and how they are reviewed, by whom, and under what pressure or obligation from a shared publisher or personal loyalty.

As with education, the starting point for deciding the success of a book is to ask the author to define what they were wanting to achieve, and go from there. When I run my workshops on “Successful self-publishing” that’s where we start. ‘What constitutes success for you?’ I ask, ‘and what it would look like if this were achieved?’

In writing as well as learning, the most useful information is ‘ipsative’, from the Latin ‘ipse’ meaning ‘self’. We are most usefully assessed against our own previous best, not against some external norms, or even against criteria that may not fully reflect our personal aspirations. If you’re a teacher or a writer, what does success look like for you?

The ‘Unbound’ contract is signed, so what now?

How did this happen, and now that it has, am I up to it?

I started to write relatively late in life: going on a course on ‘How to Write a Novel’ was my 60th birthday present to myself. Four years later I published my first novel ‘A Good Liar’ and four more have followed since then, one each year since 2012. I tried half-heartedly to find an agent or an independent publisher, failed and gave up. Being self-employed for 25 years provided a degree of self-reliance that was useful in the decision to self-publish, and to do so I well as I could, investing my own hard-earned savings where necessary. I did, and it worked, My books have sold thousands of copies, but most of the sales have been within fifty miles of where I live. They’re all set in Cumbria, and this is obviously very attractive both to locals and visitors, but the stories themselves transcend the setting: it’s the people who matter, what they do, how they feel, how they relate to each other and the lives they lead.

Knowing that the stories are wider than the setting, the promotion and distribution problems that all self-published writers face have been frustrating. With few exceptions, the prejudice against self-published books has been obvious: no reviews, no access to mainstream competitions, insufficient ‘celebrity/literary profile’ for acceptance as a speaker at the book festivals, scant regard from buyers for the major booksellers. Fortunately, I enjoy and am good at talking about my work, and do so regularly at libraries, local writers’ groups, and for Women’s Institutes and other organisations. As a result direct sales of my books are a large part of the overall total. The writer in me gets great satisfaction from readers’ appreciation of what I do, but the entrepreneur in me has been frustrated by the book world’s assumption that self-published novels are ‘ipso facto’ second-rate.

In the end, after all my planning, the invitation to move into a wider publishing world came by accident. At the end of one of my library talks a man introduced himself and told me about his daughter who works for a London-based publisher called Unbound. I listened, but people often tell me that they have contacts in the publishing world and almost invariably it comes to nothing. A week later, however, an email arrived from the daughter, a Commissioning Editor with Unbound, who’d been regaled by her parents about my books – which they love – and my talk. We met, we talked, we negotiated, and less than two months later the deal is done: I will publish my next book in 2018 through ‘Unbound’. With a working title of ‘Burning Secret’, it will be a family/police/crime story set in Cumbria in 2001 at the height of the Foot and Mouth outbreak. Next time I’ll explain in detail the stages of writing and publication over the next year or two. For the time being, check on Unbound, and look at ‘How it Works’. In a couple of weeks my project will go live on the Unbound website, video, pitch, pledges, the works. I’ll post regularly about the process here and through the Unbound website. If you want to share the journey, I’d be delighted.