Writers: Are You Ready To Sign With An Independent Publisher? Read This First #WritingCommunity

Please welcome review team member Terry Tyler, with some important thoughts on Independent Publishers

Please note: I am aware that there are plenty of good independent publishers around, who work hard for their authors and maintain good standards. The purpose of this article is to warn writers to do their research, and find them. It’s a warning not to fall prey to either the blatant conmen, or the inept.

Ten years ago, Amazon Kindle Direct Publishing was launched.  Since then, thousands of scammers and cowboys have emerged from the murky corners of the internet to make a quick quid out of the millions of writers who’ve been tapping away at the keys for years, and are delighted that they can finally get their work in front of the reading public without a contract from a traditional publisher. These scammers include: proofreaders who don’t know how to punctuate, editors who don’t recognise a badly constructed sentence, promotional services who don’t achieve any sales, and hordes and hordes of new, independent publishers who have recognised the money to be made from cheap-to-produce, cheap-to-buy Kindle books.

Did you know that anyone can set themselves up as a publisher? It doesn’t cost much, and there is no official body to whom you must prove your ability to prepare a novel for publication. There are thousands of indie publishers around these days, and most writers can find one to suit their work if they really want to. Over the last few years, though, I’ve heard the same stories, over and over. Unpaid royalties (please see H A Callum’s story, further down this article). Bad quality paperbacks. Book tour disappointments. Epic distribution fails. Worst of all, though, I’ve seen with my own eyes the low standard of editing and proofreading in some books published by small presses that have been submitted for this blog for our review team.

Recently I read one that had errors on every page. I felt so angry on behalf of the author, who had written a basically decent book. Yet the publishers’ website looks great, with avatars of smiling professionals who claim to know their stuff. It’s relatively easy to produce a great website. Producing a great book takes a little more expertise. And money.

Writers:  Do Your Research.

Don’t sign any contract until you’ve looked at a good selection of the books already published by the company, especially those with bad reviews. If the proofreading and editing is not up to scratch, don’t go there. Too many writers are so thrilled that someone wants to publish their work that they look no further than the realisation of their ‘published author’ fantasies.

Which brings me onto: the vanity publishers.

Before Amazon KDP, before the internet was littered with independent publishers, writers had three choices: aim for the dizzy heights of traditional publishing (the ‘Big Five’ and their offshoots), use a vanity publisher, or just keep writing for its own sake. Some who were desperate to see themselves in print would pay for a vanity press to turn their work into books they could hold in their hand, give as gifts, or try to flog at car boot sales. They knew what they were doing. There was no pretence about it.

Now, though, the vanity press has reinvented itself. Companies have smart websites, and give themselves descriptions like ‘hybrid publisher’, or say they are ‘bridging the gap between self and traditional publishing’. They insist that quality comes first, and make claims about their expert editors and proofreaders. They give the impression that they won’t accept just any submission that falls into their email inbox.

This is not necessarily true.

Many vanity publishers (for this is what they are) will accept pretty much any work, as long as you pay them. The clue is in the name: they will tell you how excited they are about working with you on your fabulous manuscript; they flatter you, tell you what a talented writer you are. They know what you want to hear. Of course they are excited about working with you. You’re about to hand over several thousand pounds. Then there’s their cut of the proceeds from books sold.  Yes, from the book that YOU have paid to get published. Not that you’re likely to sell very many.  Most vanity presses do nothing to promote your work. Why should they? They’ve already made their profit. From you. Recently, I and some other members of the team looked at a book published by one of these outfits. It contained numerous errors, and the content was not of a standard fit for the minimum 3* review rating required by Rosie for her blog. Heartbreakingly, the writer had written a dedication to the publishers in the book, thanking them for believing in her work.

A while back I received a message on Twitter asking me to review a book published by the most well-known of these vanity publishing scammers.  It had errors in the blurb, one of which described the heroine as being ‘adverse’ to something, rather than ‘averse’. Didn’t say much for the standard of the book itself!

Do Your Research.  If you are asked to pay for the privilege (or ‘contribute towards the cost’) of being published, it’s a vanity press. End of story.  If you don’t mind this, if you know what you’re doing and you just want someone else to do the work for you, and have print copies of your book, fine.  Do your homework, get recommendations, seek out one of the better ones, because, like with independent publishers, there are decent vanity presses, too.  But don’t just believe claims on websites. And don’t make the mistake of thinking you are being offered a real publishing deal.

 

If you self-publish, you can choose your own editors and proofreaders.  Of all the books I read for review, those that are self-published are often the best presented. Perhaps this is because they have shopped around and found the best people for the job.  If you want recommendations, ask me, or Rosie, or any writer you know who self-publishes and produces great books.

Now I’d like to bring you a summarised version of the story of H A (Heath) Callum, who, along with a few others, has been let down by a small press.

Heath’s publisher made many promises at the outset, either contractually or in writing via email.  Here is a list of what actually happened.

  • As launch day for his debut novel approached, the publisher would disappear for weeks at a time.  This meant that Heath did not have good time to get ARCs out to reviewers, and the debut was a hurried affair.
  • Heath had to facilitate his own launch and promotion, despite the original promises.  All sales and reviews were obtained by Heath himself.
  • It took over a month for the publisher to correctly list the genre of the book with vendors, which meant that it could not be found in searches.  Heath discovered how important this is when the problem was rectified, and the sales started coming in.
  • The publisher left for a European holiday (Heath is in the US) when royalties were due, having advised that funds for royalties were currently unavailable.  At this point, Heath got together with other writers in this publisher’s ‘stable’, and found that their experiences were all the same.
  • On the publisher’s return, the royalties for the second quarter were paid late, and with no statement, so the writers had no idea if the amounts were correct.
  • This was followed by another vanishing act, and the third quarter royalties were late, too.
  • Emails, voicemails and social media messages went unanswered.
  • Heath and his fellow authors then filed a petition, to recoup their losses and make others aware of the situation.

Heath and his friends felt it was important to warn and protect other writers, which is why he has chosen to speak out about this, and was happy to have his story told here; these are his words, written up by me as per the details he gave me.  He chose to submit to a small, new independent in good faith, because he liked the idea of a collaborative effort, with writers and publisher growing alongside each other.  Alas, that ideal was never met.

This is what I mean when I say that anyone can set themselves up as a publisher, with a flashy website and promises of professionalism.  Sadly, these days, you can’t believe everything you read.  Do Your Research.  Talk to other writers on the label.  Google the company, to see if anyone has made complaints about them.  Take a look at the books they’ve published.  BEFORE you end up in a situation like Heath’s.

Writing tips

Authors Reviewing Authors (It’s a Minefield) #WritingCommunity #AmWriting #AmReading

Authors reviewing authors

(it’s a minefield…) Guest post by Terry Tyler

Reviewing advice

 

The scenario: you’re a self-published/indie press published writer who tweets, blogs and is a generally active member of the online writer community.  You like to read and review the work of writer friends, if in a genre that appeals.  One of these friends (who I will call Friendly Writer and refer to as ‘he’, for convenience), asks you to review his new book, via an ARC.  The blurb piques your interest; you say yes.  You start to read, with enthusiasm—but there’s a problem.  Several of them.  The dialogue is unrealistic, the characters are one-dimensional, or tired stereotypes.  Maybe the plot is unconvincing, or it’s a bit slow/long-winded/badly researched.  If it was a random book by a stranger, you’d abandon it.

If you’ve been active in the online writer community for a while, this might be a situation you’ve already faced.  Friendly Writer is expecting a review from you.  So do you take the easy way out?  Say what a great read it is, and give it 5*?

Do you decide that it’s best to … lie?

Most writers have, at some point, been less than totally frank when reviewing.  We think about ourselves in the same situation; sometimes, being kind is more important than brutal honesty.  But there are several levels of diplomatic possibility between ‘This guy needs to find a new hobby’, and ‘This is a superb novel by a talented writer, highly recommended!’

Before I get to the helpful hints, though, let’s look at why some authors give dishonest reviews—and why they shouldn’t.

5 reasons why authors give glowing 5* reviews they don’t mean:

  • Because they’re kind.  They don’t want to hurt Friendly Writer’s feelings, and would like to give a boost to the book he’s worked so hard on.
  • Because they don’t want to face the possible hassle that might follow an honest review; easier just to provide the required positive one.
  • Because Friendly Writer has given them a 5*, or been generally supportive about their work, and they feel they ‘owe’ him the same.
  • Because other reviewers have been complimentary, and they feel under pressure to agree (‘is it just me?’).
  • Because their own new release is imminent, and they think that if they dole out the 5*, they will be reciprocated.  NB: this might involve not actually reading the whole book…

5 reasons why they shouldn’t:

  • It misleads the reading public.  All over Amazon, you can find reviews that say, ‘I don’t understand the high ratings; was I reading a different book?’, and ‘I bought this based on all the great reviews, and I wasted my money’.  Think about it.  If you’d stayed at a hotel where you received only mediocre service, would you label it ‘excellent’ on TripAdvisor?  Review a faulty electrical appliance with ‘5*, a great buy’?
  • Many people consider most Amazon reviews to be fake, purchased, written by friends or just generally ill-informed.  If you write dishonest reviews, you become part of this problem, which affects us all.
  • The misleading review doesn’t do much for your own credibility.  If you say a book is brilliant, when it has wooden dialogue and a dodgy plot, potential readers may think your own work won’t be so great, either.
  • It makes the glowing 5* that you really do mean count for nothing.  Who can tell the difference?
  • It doesn’t do Friendly Writer any favours, in the long run.

 Remember: Amazon book department is not a cosy writing group for the encouragement of aspiring authors.  It is an online shop where the reading public spend money.

Writing tips

Practical problems

Sometimes, your complaint about the book may just be that it needs a better proofread.  This is not a criticism of the writing itself, but a practical problem that can be fixed, as is an issue with formatting.  A couple of times I’ve started to read friends’ books that were otherwise very good but had considerably more than the acceptable few proofreading errors.  I emailed to tell them, so they could amend if they wanted to, or instruct their publisher to do so.  Recently, I read a terrific book with one glaring continuity error that the editor had missed; I let the author know.  She was really pleased I had.  With regard to the proofreading, I also listed some of the errors I’d found.

But what if the problems are not so easily fixed?

Here are a few suggestions:

  • Write the honest review but show it to Friendly Writer before you post it, and ask him if he’d rather you didn’t.
  • Concentrate only on the elements about the book that you did like, and give it 3*, or 4*, depending on the good/bad ratio.  For instance, it might have lousy characterisation but wonderful scene setting.  Or a plot full of holes, but delightful dialogue.  Contrary to some opinion, 3* is not a bad review; it means ‘it’s okay’ on Amazon, and ‘I liked it’ on Goodreads.  I find 3.5* very useful; you can then round up or down.  Or up on Amazon and down on Goodreads, as they mean different things.
  • Give 3* and review objectively rather than personally, by saying what the book is about and who might enjoy it.  For instance, if it’s a zany chick lit book, give a brief summary of the plot and say something like ‘If you’re a fan of Sophie Kinsella’s Shopaholic series, this might be one for you’.  Just because a book made you wince, other readers might not be so discerning.  For instance, my ‘deal breakers’ are bad grammar, lack of historical research, consistent bad punctuation, unrealistic dialogue, and characters undergoing sudden, unexplained personality changes to fit the plot.  Others might not mind or even notice these things.  Recently, I read a basically good book with punctuation errors on every page.  Out of over 30 reviews, only a handful of others mentioned them.
  • Do nothing.  This is actually not as much of a cop out as it sounds.  When I published The Devil You Know, I submitted it to lots of book bloggers who had never read me before.  Of all those who agreed to take it, two never reviewed.  I just assumed they didn’t like it much.  Friendly Writer will probably make the same assumption about your own lack of response, and thus save you both embarrassment.

What if you haven’t taken an ARC, but have bought the book and feel obliged to review because of your online friendship?

  • Say and do nothing.  See above.
  • Do not mark the book as ‘Currently Reading’ on Goodreads, or tweet that you are reading it, until you have read 20% and are sure you like it enough to continue.
  • If Friendly Writer asks, say you’re sorry, but you weren’t that interested in the subject matter/it wasn’t quite what you were expecting.  It’s likely that he will accept this with dignity; in my experience, writers who throw their toys out of the pram every time someone fails to express awe at their brilliance are few and far between.  Thank goodness.
  • Be aware of Friendly Writer’s feelings, and imagine yourself in the same position before launching into an detailed critique; if asked, mention the aspects you liked but say that you had some issues with other areas, and do not expand unless invited to.  He may already be aware of the book’s weaknesses. 

Any of these suggestions is better than writing dishonest, misleading reviews.

Lastly, if your lack of a glowing 5* results in Friendly Writer getting shirty with you, put it down to experience, and move on; if he gets upset because you are not willing to lie about his book, then perhaps his apparent ‘friendship’ was really nothing more than networking …

[Discussion] Do You Notice The Anger Emotion When Reading? #MondayBlogs #AmReading

I Have A Reading Niggle!

My thoughts on showing emotion in writing, particularly anger.

When I’m reading a novel for review, I have a mental list of points which make or break it for me. I think we all have them; some readers will abandon a book in which the dialogue is unrealistic, for others it might be over-use of adjectives and metaphors.

One element that I have a problem with is when a writer has over-played one emotion, especially when that emotion is anger.

Anger is dramatic. It can be violent, loud, or smouldering underneath. It’s also exhausting; I find the smouldering sort of anger more realistic, as it tends to build throughout the book, for instance, within the main character in a thriller. If it is written well, this can gain empathy from the reader, rather than make them want to step away and read about someone with a calmer outlook.

The type of anger I find jarring is when a character responds to a situation or confrontation only by shouting, swearing, perhaps throwing a tantrum, to the point it becomes boring and unpleasant to read. You know the character in a soap opera who is always taking what people say the wrong way and storming out of the pub, etc? Someone who reacts in this way, often, tends to be avoided by others. Such reactions are draining emotionally, and, in real life, people are not so volatile; your average adult does not make a habit of shouting, throwing tantrums or flying off the handle. Yet recently I’ve read quite a few books in which a main character seems incapable of reacting in any other way.

In the same way as using abusive language in dialogue, if any emotion is used too much, the impact is watered down. Use it sparingly, in a short burst, and it has a higher impact. If your character needs to be angry at the world then there are lots of other emotions that can express this, like sulking, wanting to be alone, bitterness, cynicism, anxiety. Most people display a huge range of emotions every single day; fictional characters should, too.

Writing tips

For professional advice on writing a range of emotions, I recommend the Writer’s Craft books from Rayne Hall. She talks sensibly about every emotion having a physical effect, in her book Writing Deep Point Of View, and also how to use a character’s mood to see different slants on situations.

 

Find Rayne on AmazonUk | AmazonUS

Other writers also recommend:

The Emotion Thesaurus by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi – AmazonUK | AmazonUS

Or the works of James Scott Bell AmazonUK | AmazonUS

I’d be interested to hear any other readers’ opinion on this.

[Re-Blog] What Do Those Star Ratings Really Mean? #WritingTip #MondayBlogs

Let’s Talk About Star Ratings

Star ratings on books can be controversial, so I asked Terry Tyler to give us her thoughts on the matter.

The star rating of a book is so important, as it can make the difference between a ‘buy’ or a ‘pass’ for a potential reader. The star average is important for authors, too, if they are approaching book promotion sites.

But what does each star rating mean? Just to make it nice and confusing, on Amazon and Goodreads the stars actually mean slightly different things, and although most book bloggers have their own system (often stated on their blog), it’s as well to be aware of what the ratings mean on these sites.

Amazon Rating

Amazon

Goodreads Rating

Goodreads

Many reviewers feel the bands between the stars are too wide and introduce their own breakdowns within these, awarding a 3.5 stars or a 4.5 stars etc. Then they might round up or down, depending on how they feel about the book. This is common practice these days and quite useful, if you feel a book is, for instance, better than a 3* but not quite up to a 4*. You can state the variation at the top of the review on Amazon and Goodreads.

If you have a blog and want to use your own system of star ratings, it’s best to display it clearly on your blog, so that readers know what you mean by those four stars for instance. Then, you can translate this to Amazon and Goodreads as you see fit. It’s important to be consistent, if you can, so that readers know what you mean by each rating.

Here’s a dilemma reviewers often face: what if a book is good, well written and researched, perfectly presented, with excellent characterisation, but just didn’t ‘float your boat’, maybe because it’s outside your favourite genre range, or was a much more gently paced book than you prefer? You have two options here, and it’s really up to you:

  • Award the stars according to your own reading experience only.
  • Bear in mind that readers who love this genre might adore it, and rate it according to its merit in that area of the market.

You can always qualify the rating with the wording in the review itself; for instance, ‘this book was a little slow for me and too romance orientated, but I think lovers of the genre will adore it.’

Reviewing advice

The most important thing is to be honest; you only have to browse Amazon to see reviews saying ‘I bought this book because of all its 5* reviews, but it’s full of grammatical errors and typos’. But don’t get in too much of a sweat over it; one man’s meat is another man’s poison. A book you consider a 5* unputdownable gem might be quite mediocre to someone else. Also, because the 5* system is so limiting, a 3* rating can mean anything from a fairly good book (‘I liked it’ on Goodreads) to something with much potential for improvement.

Ultimately, many reviewers award stars by ‘feel’. Does this book say 5* to you? It’s very important, too, not to feel pressured. If you’re a blogger who takes in review requests, your blog should make writers aware that you review honestly. It’s not unheard of for writers to hassle book bloggers to change their star rating, but please don’t succumb to this, if it happens to you. The way to make your book blog worth reading is to make it authentic.

Above all, it’s your choice, and don’t forget that every single reader will read a book differently!

One important point to make: don’t forget that on Amazon you are reviewing THE PRODUCT. Not the delivery time, or Amazon customer service, or indeed the writer. I’ve seen books given 1* simply because the customer had trouble downloading the book! This can reflect badly on the author.

Writing tips

Want to read more advice posts? Find them here, on our Wednesday Wing Page.

Which star ratings do you trust or look for, when checking out a book?