How Amazon’s New Review Policies Hurt Authors and Book Bloggers

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I’m popping in for an unscheduled post because I have something I have to get off my chest. Ahem.

In my 10 months as an indie author, I’ve learned many lessons, the biggest of which is probably that the industry changes really fast. But I have a big problem with one of the latest changes, which affects not only indie authors, but ALL authors.

Amazon has decided that reviews that are part of a paid blog tour can’t be placed on their site. Now, I understand that they consider this part of their “you can’t pay for book reviews” rule which is a valid rule. But I don’t think they understand how blog tours work. Here’s the deal. On a blog tour, you are paying for space on the blogger’s site – whether that is purely promotional with cover, blurb and buy links, or a review, if the blogger chooses to leave one – and for them to receive a copy the book, not for the review, which is optional. I’ve been with a few companies that say if the blogger doesn’t like the book, they shouldn’t post anything, a rule I like because I’d rather see nothing than see them publicly skewer my work. (Granted, in that case I get no publicity either, but the person did read the book, so I didn’t pay for nothing.)

Not allowing these reviews to be posted (or later removing them, which is worse) puts authors in a bind and lessens the value of blog tours. Reviews are SOOOOOO hard to come by, especially for indie authors who don’t have the same level of exposure as some traditionally published authors. I don’t understand why, but a lot of people are hesitant to leave reviews. Of course, I know some people won’t like the book and some just forget, but others worry that they have to write something worthy of the New York Times. I keep telling everyone that even if they just give it a star rating and say “I liked this book,” that is enough. But yet I have people who I know loved a book because they told me by email or on social media but they have never left a review.

And that’s not even counting Amazon’s policy that reviews left by anyone they deem may know you can be removed. That’s a whole other level of trouble for authors. I know they are aiming to remove bias, but when you are just starting out, friends and family are a large chunk of your audience. Plus, nowadays a lot of our readers connect with us online, which is a totally different nature than an in-person actual friendship and shouldn’t fall under this rule.

At the same time, we live and die by reviews. Amazon uses the number of reviews we have to trigger their marketing and promotions efforts, including the “customers also bought” and “you might like lists.” These may not sound like much, but they are crucial for exposure. Perhaps the biggest way Amazon reviews affect us is that in order to even be considered for the Holy Grail of promotions – the BookBub feature – your book must have at least 50 4- or -5-star reviews on Amazon. (I’ve tried getting a feature on a book that doesn’t meet that requirement; don’t bother because they will reject you right away.) Not to mention that when people are trying to decide whether or not to purchase a book, they look at the reviews. Correctly or not, the more reviews a book has (assuming they are positive), the more attractive a book is.

But getting back to my original point, blog tours used to help us reach those goals. On average, a blog tour will net you between 10-20 reviews, depending on how long your tour is and how many people liked the book. Now, those reviews don’t help toward our marketing goals. Yes, you still get the eyes of the blog subscribers and maybe Goodreads users (if they post there) on the review, but that’s not nearly as many people as would see it on Amazon. And you can excerpt the reviews in the Editorial Reviews section, but those don’t add to your ratings score and most people ignore them. Reviews used to be a value ad for doing a tour. Now that that is gone, I don’t know if tours are worth the money. Where does that leave us and where does that leave book bloggers? Only time will tell.

Amazon pretty much built the self-publishing industry with the Kindle. Now they are restricting the possibility of success for the very people they need in order for their sales to continue to be strong. That makes no sense to me. Before you say, “if you’re not happy, don’t use them,” I will note that I have my books on many platforms and 95% of my sales (not including hand-selling) come from Amazon, so I’m dependent on them. Right now, I’m just grateful they exempted authors from their rule that you can’t give away free goods in exchange for a review; if they hadn’t we’d be totally screwed and ARCs would be a thing of the past.

As a customer, I love Amazon. As an author, I find their business services easy to use and I love the exposure I get to their audience, but their review rules are bewildering. Why outlaw something that will help them make money? Aren’t sales what they are after? Now they are basically asking us to find a bunch of total strangers and magically convince them to buy a book from an author they’ve likely never heard of and leave a review. Easy-peasy, right? Maybe if you already have a following, but if you don’t?

I fear that these rules, especially if they continue to get tighter – which I imagine they will – may well discourage people from self-publishing or make authors think twice before continuing to do so and hurt the industry Amazon helped build. Will it kill the industry? Probably not, but by restricting reviews to this extent, Amazon is certainly shooting itself in the foot and dissatisfying one of their biggest customer groups.

What do you think? How do we thrive despite increasing restrictions? If you’re an author, will the changes affect the way you market your books? How? Am I thinking about this wrong? If so, how do you see the changes? I hate to be wrong, but it’s always possible.

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Revising, editing, and all the rough drafts.

As I sit down to work on yet another rough draft, I thought it might be interesting to read about how I revise and edit a new book. Because I also offer manuscript critique services, I see a lot of books before they’re ready from new writers. It’s always hard to know when a book is done and it’s time to let it go out into the world and flourish or die by its own merit, but you do need to spend a significant amount of time on it before that happens.

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First, I outline the story. I like to do this long hand, with a pen and a legal pad. I use the longer legal pads and, usually, one page = one chapter. It’s lame and mundane and in a bullet point list, just so I know what’s happening and how in each chapter. The magic happens when I’m actually writing. When I was a new writer, I didn’t outline because I lost the urgency to tell the story, so if you’re not an outliner, don’t freak out; everyone is different and things change from book to book.

Once the outline is done, I fast draft the book. This means I write daily, usually taking 1-2 days off a week so I don’t burn out, until it’s done. There are some days where I might just get 500 words or 1,000 words, but my goal is 2-4k words a day. But, again, every book is different. As long as I make some progress, I’m happy.

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Then, when that first draft is done, I back up my work in 2-3 different places. I like to email myself the document every day so I don’t ever lose any work. But when I finish, I email myself again the completed document. I also save it to a memory stick. This way, if something happens to my computer, my book is safely stored in two places that can’t also be damaged by whatever killed my computer. When I was writing my fourth book, Fire, my hard-drive crashed and I lost about 20k words because I wasn’t in the habit of emailing myself on the daily, just at the end of a draft. It was devastating. Never again!

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Then I walk away. I close the file on the computer and I don’t look at it again for at least a week, sometimes as much as six months. Again, it depends on the book (and deadlines). But I get away from it and do other things. I clean the house, I read other people’s books, I relax. I do things that have nothing to do with the book I was writing. I may even start writing (and finish) another book before I ever come back to it. There’s a few reasons for this but the main reason is so that I can come back to it with fresh eyes.

You just spent a couple of months to the better part of a year focused on this one story, it’s been loud in your head, the characters alive and and controlling. If you come back too soon, you’ll remember everything and you won’t see mistakes, you won’t find the plot holes, you won’t pick up on the weaknesses or the thin characters. You need to read your rough draft as though you weren’t the one who wrote it.

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I like to print out a copy of the MS to go over it the first time. This way I’m not working on it in the same medium that I wrote it. I am familiar with it on the computer screen, so my eyes and mind might trick me into reading it the way I wanted it to be, not the way it is. By printing it, it becomes a new book and I can take a bright red pen to it and make corrections and notes to transcribe back on the computer. That’s the second draft.

Now, depending on the book, this is the right time to give it to beta readers to go over. I like to have at least two readers, but three is ideal. You want readers who will give it back to you in 2-4 weeks. This gives you another break away from the book, but also ensures your readers focus on your book so they don’t forget what they read in the first half because they took so long to finish it.

Wait to make any changes to your MS until you hear back from all betas. This gives you the chance to see if critiques are just personal preference or if you really missed something because they all mentioned the same thing(s).

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Now I go over the book again, this time on the computer, comparing beta notes, seeing if I agree or not. If I agree with a change, I have to make sure I thread it through the whole book. That’s the third draft.

Now I put it on a tablet to read it as an ebook. You may need another break or you may be ready to just dive in. So, again, I’m reading it in a different medium and more like any reader who bought it would read it. I use the highlight and note function to keep track of issues and changes I want to make. Once I make those changes, I’ve got a fourth draft.

Only on the 3rd or 4th draft does my editor get the book. Because I self-publish, I pay my editor for her services, so why in the world would I send her a book before it’s ready? I wouldn’t, and neither should you. I often get MSs that are not ready and people are paying me a fee to go over the book and 90% of the time, most of my notes could have been caught by the author or by a beta reader to be addressed for free.

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Once I get my MS back from my editor and implement the line-edits and content-edits, I am up to the fifth draft. Guess what? It goes back for a proof-reader to comb to make sure we didn’t miss any tiny mistakes.

So, in the end, I’m publishing the 5th or 6th draft. I don’t always use beta readers because sometimes I’m up to the 5th, 6th, or 7th book in a series and I can’t expect friends to do that much work for me. But the first book in a series? A stand alone? A trilogy? Yes, I use beta readers for all of those.

You will get to the point where you start to hate your book because you’ve read it so many times, but that’s what it takes to polish it, to develop those characters, to make the plot compelling. This is the work that goes into a book. Getting that first draft is the easy part, making it a book is where the hard work really is.

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Writing is re-writing. This is the rule you should be living by.

And, speaking of working on a new, revised, and edited book, I just published one this week! If you’re a fan of witches and magic set in modern day, might I recommend my Matilda Kavangh Novels series. I just published the seventh book!

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Genre Conventions, I Defy You

One of my current favorite shows on TV is Jane the Virgin, a clever, satirical romance-drama-telenovela hybrid that is one of the smarter shows I’ve seen in the last few years. It breaks down romance and soap opera conventions while still playing within the rules of the category: even as it pokes fun at the rules of the telenovela, it abides by them. The result, while cheesy at first glance, is magnificently self-aware, snarky, and satisfying, because it trusts an audience aware of the conventions it explores.

Without getting spoilery, the first episode of the new season looks at the expectations of the romance reader/viewer, specifically that magic component, the HEA. (That’s Happily Ever After in romance lingo, for those of you who aren’t in the know.) When readers pick up a novel in the romance section of the bookstore, they expect, by and large, a happily ever after, whatever that may look like: a wedding, a baby, a kiss, a couple together forever. When writers break with that convention, it seems to create two primary results: extreme disappointment or flat-out awe at the creator of such a groundbreaking work.

As writers, most of us aren’t lucky enough to land in the second category. It takes a deft hand to write a tragic romance or a sci-fi with magical components, and it takes a truly visionary editor to find a way to sell those genre-bending pieces.

So what makes one of the successful convention-defying pieces work? Often, it’s the tricks that make all great pieces of media stand out, like great characters, compelling conflicts, and gorgeous writing. But I think there’s a secret ingredient that Jane the Virgin has unwittingly revealed: self-awareness.

While Jane the Virgin works within the rules of the telenovela, and would likely alienate its audience if it tried to tell a true tragedy, its self-awareness turns it from a typical soap opera into a deconstruction of a soap opera. By pointing out and exploring the rules of its genre, it tells a deeper story because it looks at why we have certain expectations of genre fiction. The audience becomes a part of the story.

Any time we engage with a work of fiction, we bring to it our own circumstances, our history, and our particular wants and needs. I might pick up a romance novel because I need to see that happily ever after; you might pick up a fantasy novel because you want an escape. If an author denies us the defining characteristic we are expecting from a work we’ve engaged with, they are often denying to meet our needs. But when they find a way to satisfy those needs while still surprising us, that’s when conventions become secondary to story and art is born.

What are your favorite genre-defying stories? How does genre expectation influence your reading of a particular work?

Doppelgängers

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Mirror, mirror

Picture this: you’re standing in front of the mirror, brushing your teeth. Your reflection stares placidly back. A whistle from the kitchen startles you–you turn to look into the kitchen, and you see the noise is just the kettle going off. You turn your gaze back to the mirror, and in that instant, out of the corner of your eye, you are certain that your reflection has not moved. You lock eyes with yourself, but your reflection seems suddenly wrong. Are your eyes really so dark? Your chin so sharp?

But no. You tell yourself you’re just being stupid. Of course that’s what your reflection looks like–it’s you, after all. Isn’t it?

Maybe. Or maybe it’s your doppelgänger.

Although the German word doppelgänger, translating literally to “double-goer,” is a relatively recent addition to the vernacular, the concept of an alter-ego or shadow self appears frequently in the mythology and folk-lore of many world cultures. Although a physical lookalike or double of the person in question, a doppelgänger often takes the role of a darker counterpart to the self. In many cultures, it is said that to catch a glimpse of one’s doppelgänger is a harbinger of bad luck, and potentially an omen of one’s own death.

How They Met Themselves, by Dante Gabriel Rosetti
How They Met Themselves,
by Dante Gabriel Rosetti

In ancient Egyptian mythology, the ka was a tangible “spirit double” possessing the same memories and feelings as the physical counterpart. In some myths, the shadow double could be manipulated to perform tasks or duties while acting as their physical counterpart. In Norse mythology, a vardøger was a spirit predecessor, a shadowy double preceding a living person in location or activity, resulting in witnesses seeing or hearing a person before they actually arrived. And in Celtic mythology, a fetch was an exact, spectral double of a person, whose appearance was ominous in nature, often foretelling a person’s imminent death. The fetch could also act as a psychopomp, stealing away the soul of their living double and transporting them to the realm of the dead.

The concept of a dark double appears frequently in literature and pop culture as well. Edgar Allan Poe’s short story “William Wilson” explores the idea of a doppelgängers with a reversal on the traditional “evil twin” story–one of the doubles is amoral and debauched, yet his wicked schemes are always being unmasked by his virtuous identical. Charlie Chaplin’s seminal film “The Great Dictator” also explores the idea of evil twins, where Chaplin plays both the good, simple barber and the megalomaniacal, Hitler-esque dictator. Even the modern show “The Vampire Diaries” has a doppelgänger story-line; Elena Gilbert’s vampire double Katerina is everything spice to Elena’s nice. Katerina is sexy where Elena is pretty, violent where Elena is gentle, and traitorous where Elena is loyal.

But why is the doppelgänger myth so prevalent in folklore and modern culture? What makes us so frightened of our shadowy doubles?

Myself, my shadow self
Myself, my shadow self

In Jungian psychology, the “shadow self” refers to the unconscious or less desirable aspects of the personality that the conscious ego does not identify in itself. In other words, the shadow self is a vehicle and receptacle for our deepest secrets and darkest fears, living in the darkest corners of our souls. And, no matter how much we reject them, these dark doubles are ultimately our own worst selves reflected back at us.

Perhaps the myth of the doppelgänger arose from this sense of shadow and darkness lurking within everyone. We are our own evil twins, spectral doubles confined to one body. Perhaps that is why, when we catch a glimpse of ourselves in a darkened mirror or a pane of glass, we feel unsettled, reverberating with the echoes of familiarity and yet, unfamiliarity.

Perhaps, in the end, we are all haunted by the ghosts of ourselves.

Do you have a favorite doppelgänger or evil twin story? Share your thoughts in the comment section below!

When You’re a Writer, Every Day is a School Day

This is what my brain looks like all the time. And those arms? Those are my characters. We don't ever stop. (Image purchased from Adobe Stock.)
This is what my brain looks like all the time. And those arms? Those are my characters. We don’t ever stop. (Image purchased from Adobe Stock.)

My name is Niki and I’m addicted to learning. Seriously. I’m convinced there’s a part of my soul that never left school. I would be a lifelong student if someone would pay me to go to school. I think that’s one of the reasons I gravitated toward historical fiction as my main genre. I love the research and learning new things. Sharing them on my blog is like a never-ending book report or research paper – my idea of heaven. (Yes, I know I’m odd.)

Every year around the end of August/beginning of September, I get the urge to further my education. I really think it’s because I associate the change in weather with learning. I still have major anxiety freak outs according to the school calendar (August, December and May – seriously, like clockwork), so it’s possible. In past years I’ve looked at Masters/PhD programs in history, religion or writing, my three favorite subjects. But since I can’t really afford tuition right now, I decided I can probably learn basically what I need to on my own. (Although I can almost promise there is more formal education in my future as soon as time and finances allow.) So a few years ago, I started my DIY MFA program.

If you bothered to look at that link, you’ll see that I am crazy. It contains a list of 78 books, DVD courses and webinars. (The crossed out ones are ones I’ve finished.) I started it in 2015 and have been adding to it ever since. It started out pretty short and balanced between categories, but now, with my transition to indie author, is heavily leaning toward marketing and history, which reflects where my brain is now. I learned how to research in college as part of my undergrad thesis in English, but I’m really curious as to how historians are trained, so I plan to read those books next. After I finish the pile of marketing books on my kitchen table. (You have to remember that marketing is my day job, too, so I’m doubly interested, even though internal health care communications is totally different from marketing a book).

Sadly, there are about 20 more books on my Amazon wish-list that I didn’t add to the DIY MFA because I’m not sure they’d be worth my time. And plus, I have 70-something books to read first. (Yay, library!) I’m also in the process of making my way through all the Netgalley books I’ve requested and never read (10), books I started but haven’t finished (10) and all the reviews I’ve promised people (3, I think), not to mention the 400 something books on my TBR list.

I think my recent trip to Oxford made me worse. It’s a city founded on learning with more than 30 libraries. How can it not bring out my inner student? If I had known in college what I know now (and had the maturity I have now) I would have gone to Oxford and studied history. But in reality, I wasn’t ready to move away from home, much less to another country, and I didn’t yet know how much I love history, so that wasn’t even on my radar. And I guess it’s good because I’d be a totally different person. My college experience was one of the most formative of my life.

You would think my crazy schedule over the last year – publishing and marketing four books in seven months with a full-time job, plus five conferences and a ton of speaking engagements – would have worn me out, and it has, physically. But I don’t think anything short of death (which I’m hoping won’t happen for a long, long time, like in 50+ years) will stop my brain from whirring. I know I can’t write right now (none of my characters are talking) and since I can’t fathom the concept of doing nothing, I’ll be gorging my brain on writing-related books and the occasional fiction for levity.

If you need me, I’ll be under a pile of blankets and books with two cats. Likely to emerge sometime in early 2017.

What do you think of my DIY MFA program? Have you read any of the books on the list? What do you do when your brain won’t stop?