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A dog-wagging tale … or tail.

Let me tell you a story.

Once upon a time, in a universe in which eBooks and indie writers never existed, talented storytellers weaved bold tales with risky, controversial plot-lines. Readers grew close to characters, wept if they died, but soldiered on through the book when it was well-done and came away richer for the experience of living through a tale that took them on an emotional roller-coaster and made them wonder if they’d survive the journey.

Flash forward to the present day: that universe does not exist anymore. And I’m about to pull back the curtain and tell you why.

Pay No Attention to the Old(-School) Writer Behind the Curtain!

Recently … very recently, in fact … I visited an online writer’s hangout I frequent and one of the topics getting batted around centered on this: a first-time author was bemoaning receiving a three-star review, and had some writerly-types all riled up about getting Amazon to connect real names to book reviews and maybe even shut down reviewers like this who were “obviously just trolls out to damage my sales and career.”

Seriously. You did not misread that. All that, over the three-star review.

Not even a one-star review. Three-star. Oy!

To make matters worse, the author in question didn’t even seem upset or, frankly, to even have read the review itself. They were just upset that the three-star review hurt their average, pulling their book below a four-star average.

Yup. Still serious.

Now, this all might seem rather petty and small-minded on the part of the author, but let me assure you, this one author is not the exception to the rule, and there is an entire generation of indie authors who long not for thoughtful reviews, but desire nothing less than an endless stream of four-star and five-star reviews and anything less upsets them.

Perhaps not quite so much as to call the reviewer a troll, but still, they’re not happy.

Are a whole generation of novelists and short story writers losing their minds?

Now, here’s the real shocker for the uninitiated: Nope.

The must-be-loved attitude among modern indies is completely new territory over the past three or four years, a mental space many of us have been dragged to by another force: book promotion sites.

I’ll Gladly Pay You Wednesday for a 5-Star Review Today

In the world of modern eBook book-selling, Amazon reviews hold a lot of sway over a lot of customers. Understandably, many readers don’t desire to read sub-par books. So Amazon reviews, they feel, are an aid to that end.

But another factor is at play: the rise of eBook promotion sites and services.

You know the sort of sites I mean: Kindle News Daily, BookBub, other less-prominent sites of that ilk.

And also, popular book bloggers with large followings play a role, too: they understandably don’t want their time wasted on sub-par books, so to avoid a deluge of review requests, popular book bloggers, as well as promo sites like KND and BookBub developed some “minimum standards” to separate the wheat from the chaff.

Review and promo sites want a basis upon which to reject books of obviously low quality, so that they can assure their customer-base that they only promote/advertise “quality books.” That’s understandable. You need a set of standards that apply to all books, so that no one can accuse these sites of personal motivations for rejecting dreckish “masterpieces.”

So the question becomes, how does one assure that?

All Around the Kindle Fire, the Writer Chased the Review…

Well, one way to go is to read every book before accepting it to be advertised or reviewed. Yet that’s time-consuming and requires a huge staff. Most places won’t do that, because they’re not the NY Times Review of Books. Who can afford that?

Another way to go is to only advertise books that have passed editorial muster somewhere. That’s faulty, however, because that cuts out all indies… and more than a handful of indies are producing good work that sells well.

And if they have money because they sell well, they want to spend some of those funds by reinvesting back into their book’s success, to keep the sales rolling in. So, if you’re a book blogger or book promo site, how do you justify saying no to books that are good and do sell well, simply because they don’t come from a Big 5/6 house, or a small press? So that won’t work, either.

So the next idea is you outsource the quality control on indie books. That means requiring a minimum number of reviews (usually, on Amazon only) and a minimum star rating, to qualify for your book to be worth a book-blogger’s time, or a book-promotion site’s ad space.

Most sites currently require somewhere between five to twenty-five Amazon reviews. Some sites even require “at least one or two” of those reviews to be from “power reviewers.” In other words, other well-known book bloggers. The other requirement, and this tends to be universal, is that your indie book must receive an average score of 4.0 out of five stars.

Yes, really. I bet some of your never knew that before you read this article, unless you’re an author yourself.

I Like Big Buts, and I Cannot Lie…

Here’s a brief list of well-known, popular authors who’ve produced great books that sell well, but do not currently meet that 4.0-star minimum rating, and would thus be rejected by the standards KND, BookBub, popular book bloggers, and other such sites require of indie books:

Cell by Stephen King (Current average score: 3.5 stars, despite selling well and being a rather different take on the “zombie novel” genre.)

The Body by Stephen King (Current average score: 3.9 stars, despite being the basis for the movie Stand By Me.)

London Bridges (2.8), Cross Country (2.7), Roses are Red (3.6), and Violets are Blue (3.3) by James Patterson. (Patterson’s Alex Cross series is mostly pretty popular, but not these four installments.) Sorry, Jim, you sell millions, but you can’t bring this dreck to BookBub!

Anything by John Irving written since 2000. While his classics, like World According to Garp and Hotel New Hampshire are safe, none of Irving’s more recent work, from Widow for a Year forward, have received the vaunted 4.0-star minimum threshold.

Dead Ever After by Charlaine Harris (3.0). Readers can’t forgive Harris for ending the Sookie Stackhouse series, it seems… or agree with the way she ended it, even though the series turned her into a New York Times Bestseller’s List standby. In fact, from Dead and Gone forward, the series has rated below 4.0 for its duration, and the post DEA follow-up, After Dead (1.7) has been the subject of readers’ wrath.

Robert B. Parker was a standby hard-boiled detective novelist in the 1980s and 1990s. He passed away a few years ago. But at least half of his Spenser books, as well as pretty much all of his Jesse Stone and Sunny Randall novels, fail to pass the 4.0-minimum muster.

I could go on and on. And I half-suspect some publishers have taken note of the recent emphasis on 4.0 Amazon score minimums, too, because some of the books I know were below 4.0 even last year at this time are now just at or slightly above 4.0 ratings now. Indies are not the only ones gaming the system.

Pack Up Your Troubles In an Old Kit Bag, and Smile Smile Smile…

Now, most sane authors, prior to the eBook/Indie era, didn’t pay attention to their reviews if they valued their peace of mind.

Or they paid obsessive attention to them and got emotionally all a-quiver over them, riding the emotional highs and lows of good and negative reviews.

Either way, the emphasis was on what was said, not on a somewhat arbitrary rating system review score.

But we’re not in that era now. There is a whole generation of readers who, like these book promotion sites, expect high ratings before they’ll even consider buying someone’s book. Book promotion sites like BookBub love to scream, “Has 500 5-star reviews on!” in as many of their listings as possible. Which is silly, but it is what it is.

The reason it’s silly, though, is because the emphasis is not being placed on the idea that one’s novel has been read by real people. Instead, the emphasis is now on people not just reading, not just liking, but absolutely and uncritically LOVING your book.

So any review that’s not a 4-star or 5-star review is seen as a dis, rather than an honest opinion from someone who actually read your book and formed an opinion of it. Having your book read by someone who cared enough to form an opinion on it used to be regarded as being as precious as heavenly manna.

These days, it must be a 4-star or 5-star positive opinion and few authors care about what the review even says, unless it might be perceived as critical and therefore “damaging to sales.”

That’s wrong-headed thinking for authors in many, many ways. But it’s how a growing number of writers think, these days. Readers are no longer an audience you want to connect with, but are increasingly regarded, disrespectfully, as a “barrier to my success!”

Because if you lose that 4.0 minimum review rating on Amazon, all sorts of promotional doors begin closing to the struggling indie author.

Bedtime for Bonzo

Well, if authors are now in the business of earning only 4-star and 5-star reviews, what type of literature are they producing?

Certainly not literature that takes any creative risks, by and large.

This is why frightened inexperienced authors go on message boards to ask more-experienced authors if it’s “okay” to kill off a character, or have a less-than-joyous ending, or any number of other things writers are terrified to do, these days. Especially in indie-land.

Even in genres where character deaths and grim endings make sense, like horror.

And this is bad news for everyone involved.

I would almost (but not quite) go so far as to suggest that paranormal romance/urban fantasy exists primarily because of this desire not to tick off readers in any way that would potentially lead to lower review scores.

Oh, wait, you LIKE my vampire? Okay, he’ll sparkle in the sun and be your ideal chaste boyfriend… and he’d never dream of biting you without permission, let alone feeding on and killing you, because characters should never die. Ever. Which makes vampires so ideal… they live forever, so long as they keep feeding. Which… they can’t do in order to remain an ideal boyfriend, and… oh wait… something’s breaking down here… I guess plots shouldn’t make sense…

So, the tail is wagging the dog a lot these days.

Authors are afraid to take even minor risks with plot. The complete emphasis is not on telling a great story, so much as telling a story that ticks off no one, because if you tick readers off, they might give you a 3-star review or lower, and then you can’t promote your book, and…

…See what I mean? It’s all upside down.

But… but Joss Whedon said… JOSS FRICKIN’ WHEDON SAID…

In a DVD audio commentary on the Season 6 package for Buffy the Vampire Slayer, now-famed director Joss Whedon shared his theory of how to handle character deaths. And this is a man with blood on his hands already by then, having killed off Buffy’s mom the previous season.

But when sitting down with such now-famous talents as Marti Noxon, Tim Minear, David Fury, and David Greenwalt, among others, to break down the big story points of season six, Whedon said, “Someone big has to die this season. Someone who means something to Willow, to explain her descent into the dark side.”

Several names were bandied about, but Whedon’s crew (as Joss tells it) was adamant about one thing: the one person other than Buffy herself who was untouchable was Tara, Willow’s then-girlfriend. “There’s no other relationship like it on television,” their logic went, “and viewers would hate us for it.” I guess Xander was the leading candidate, but everyone’s firm opposition to it being Tara is something that perked Whedon’s ears up.

“From the moment I was told, ‘It can’t be Tara,’ she was dead meat,” Whedon recalled. “That’s when I knew it absolutely had to be her. No loss would be more personal, or better motivation for Willow to give herself over to the darkness.”

It was a bold and risky choice, the type which Whedon has developed a reputation for making. In fact, don’t be surprised if Whedon someday decides it’s time to kill off Iron Man in Marvel’s The Avengers. He has a history.

And to be honest, as painful as the loss of Tara was for fans, I absolutely agree with Whedon’s choice. Losing anyone else, like Xander or Giles or Dawn, would not have motivated Willow’s transformation into Dark Willow more understandably than the death of Tara. “You killed my best friend’s sister!” just doesn’t ring with the same sense of tragic loss and thirst for bloody vengeance the same way, “You killed the only person I’ve ever loved!” does.

And without something huge, like the death of Tara, to motivate her, Willow’s transformation into Season 6’s Big Bad would have felt completely contrived, rather than an organic outgrowth of a terrible loss.

If I Show You, Then I Know You Won’t Tell What I Said, Because Two Can Keep a Secret If One of Us is Dead…

Like the death of Tara in Buffy Season 6, great books also take risks, including but not limited to the death of beloved characters. Because great books are less concerned with reader wrath (despite the well-known reluctance of J.K. Rowling in her Harry Potter books) and low review scores, than with telling a great story.

Some of the best reads I’ve ever enjoyed had characters die, or do something controversial, or featured downer endings.

For example, in the book version of Cujo, Tad dies. Donna confronts the rabid dog too late to save his life. Her survival had a cost. It was an ending so controversial at the time, that they changed it in the movie version.

Yet in the more-recent Doctor Sleep, also by King, only the bad guys die. And rather easily, at that. Not a single good guy snuffs it as a price for victory over the baddies.

If King were to re-do The Dead Zone today, it’d become a ten-part series. Johnny would never sacrifice himself to save his ex-girlfriend’s kid. He’d successfully assassinate the evil Greg Stinson, but somehow live on to have “many other adventures.” Thus ripping the emotional core and tragic heroism out of the novel, which is what made The Dead Zone one of my favorite books among King’s early works: sometimes life just doesn’t play fair.

Great theme. Epic theme. But it’s guaranteed to tick readers off.

But at least no one would give King a 3-star review or lower. And that’s the name of the game today. Not great-storytelling, just a lack of ticked-off readers.

You Can’t Be Bought Without Awareness, You Can’t Raise Awareness Without Being Bought

The whole dynamic here becomes a tad incestuous. Similar to the whole “we only hire people with experience, but you can’t get experience till someone hires you” conundrum teenagers face when looking for their first job, it’s hard to get a foothold as an author.

See, if people are unaware you exist, they can’t even begin to consider buying your book. But promotional sites won’t give you access to greater audience awareness via their promotional punch (and some book bloggers popular enough to have a following won’t review you, either) until you’ve sold enough to meet these minimum standards they’ve set up.

Is it any wonder, then, that some inexperienced writers are tempted to game a system rigged against them?

Then Count the Votes Until They Add Up Right…

The trouble with all this emphasis on reviews of four stars and five stars is, it’s an easily-gamed system, if you have the money. And it doesn’t take as much money as you might think.

Ever since John Locke confessed to buying reviews for some of his early books, it’s been a poorly-kept secret that there are services out there that will produce Amazon reviews for you, guaranteed to give you whatever review score you desire.

It’s fraudulent, sure; but people mostly only complain about those who get caught at it. I’ve known for a long time that five bucks could net me five five-star reviews on Amazon, over on I’ve never bitten. Why? Because I’d rather accumulate reviews the honest way.

Old-school writer that I am, I care about real people reading my books and giving their genuine opinions on them. Heck, a three-star review from a widely-followed book-blogger gave one of my books, Most Likely, the biggest one-day sales-boost it ever received. A review doesn’t need to be uncritical praise to help you. It just needs to be a review by a book blogger who has a following. If they can write a balanced review, so much the better. Who cares how many stars that means? I got quotes off that review that I still use today.

But then, I struggle to meet basic expenses each month while John Locke sells millions. So which of us is the dummy? Also, Locke’s books are actually entertaining reads that have gone on to earn quite a few legitimate five-star reviews, so… does it matter, ultimately?

The answer will largely depend on your personal ethics.

And That’s the Bottom Line, ‘Cuz Stone Cold Says So!

I think readers should be entitled to whatever opinions they have of a book. And I mean the entire range of opinions, from one-star to five-star, from Hated It to Loved It, from Thumbs Down to Thumbs Up. And anywhere in between. Writers need to remember that reviews are just opinions, and it’s not the reader’s fault that their opinions are now being used as a gatekeeper at book promotion sites or by popular, in-demand book bloggers. Those sites and bloggers are just doing their job, and readers reacting to your work should be treasured no matter what their opinion of your work is.

Readers never asked to have their opinions made into a sales tool. Stop blaming them.

And writers should stop catering to the whims of the most reactionary readers, write what’s best for the story, and cease worrying whether someone might get upset about it. Remember, this is just words on paper, folks. If you created a story that crafted a compelling enough tale that when one of your characters die, it inspires a reaction … even if it’s hate-mail and a one-star review … why, you’ve done your job. Rejoice and be glad, for tomorrow we all may perish.

The current eco-system of advertising being linked to reader opinions has everything all out of whack. But it’s not the reader’s fault or their doing. And promotion sites and book bloggers need some way to screen out stuff so they don’t get overloaded. If it weren’t a minimum number of Amazon review scores and minimum star ratings, it’d be something else.

It’s a system. Accept it, because you can’t make it go away just because you don’t like it. Be bold in your storytelling and stop the catering. That’s the key to producing stories that will be remembered for the right reasons, not just because no one got upset while reading it. Do what’s right for the best storytelling possible, always.

With no apologies.

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