I was poking around yesterday, in gaps between tasks for my real job, and I noticed there were a lot of opinions around on indie authors slapping each other on the back and telling each other they’re great. And I can see where the Blog authors are coming from on this. I mean, let’s be honest, there is a lot of shit out there that has been self published. (I would always contend that there’s a lot of shit out there that has been traditionally published as well, but that’s beside the point). The thing is, there’s also some great stuff. When I find a good indie author I will give them a good review. I try and be as honest as possible, as objective as possible, but I guess it’s kind of inevitable that I’ll be slightly more enthused about their work knowing about its origins than I would be if I just stumbled across it in, say, the library.
The thing to bear in mind as well is this: most people only review when they a) like something and b) feel their review has some sort of purpose. I don’t put reviews up on Amazon for the latest Stephen King blockbuster because by the time I read it and get on Amazon it already has hundreds of them, so what does mine contribute? If I thought it was brilliant and everyone else gave it 2 stars, then I might feel compelled to try and redress the balance, and vice versa. But otherwise, I won’t bother.
Indie books and small press books tend to have far fewer, or no reviews at all. So I think my opinion may carry more weight and be actually helpful. How many one or two star reviews have I given an indie book? None. But let me try and quantify that. I review for the Amazon Vine programme and in doing that I feel I have a commitment to be honest about the product I’ve received on Amazon’s and the seller’s behalf. I’ve often given these things three or two or one star reviews. I’ve also given bad reviews for films I’ve watched or CDs I’ve bought. With books, my habits are a bit different – not my reviewing habits, but my consumption habits. If I read an awful book I usually won’t finish it. If it’s a bit rubbish I’ll soldier on until I just run out of the will to continue (because I read one book at a time, a good indication of this is if I haven’t picked it up or read anything in days and days). If it’s garbage, it either won’t make it past the sample (if an ebook) or the first page or two. If this is the case, I won’t review it, I can’t review it. So I don’t think I’ve ever given any book, indie or otherwise, a rating under three stars (except for one Vine novel I think which I felt I had to read right through for the reasons stated above). Generally, if it’s less than three stars I won’t have invested my time in sticking with it.
There is also part of me which, whether rightly or wrongly, doesn’t want to slam an author who is struggling to attract an audience in the first place. I know, I know, that doesn’t sound ethical. If I’m willing to rate a mainstream product without regard to the consequences, why not an independent one? The thing is, the currency for indie writers starting out seems to be review stars. If I’m the first reviewer and I give it one, then it’s likely that will put a lot of other people off. And the review will, of course, just be my opinion. These other people might love it, and I’ve denied them the chance right off the bat. If anything, giving a bad review when your view is subjective and there are no other voices to balance it seems more unfair than anything else. It’s kind of a moot point because of what I said above, but in the interests of honesty I wanted to make it anyway.
What does this have to do with writing forums? Well, the thing is, I really really want to hear honest opinions about my writing. I don’t want everyone to say ‘it’s great, it’s great’ and pass me off with platitudes. I know I’m not the complete writer, I know I have a lot of improvements to make, and I want to make them and get better. Of course, everyone says that, and then they throw their toys out of the pram when someone makes one comment about something they don’t like. Honestly, that’s not me. I’m writing a novel at the moment and I’ve never managed to write a sustained piece of work successfully before. So I want as much help as I can get – I want people to tell me ‘this would work better if…’ or ‘this detracts’ or ‘it’s getting boring here’. But where can you get this kind of feedback?
I’ve been a member of the WeBook forum for about four years now. I used it extensively when I was writing my short story collection and got some good, useful feedback from one or two people. I haven’t been back on for about eighteen months because I had so much going on I stopped writing for a bit, so I’ve been a bit silly there and have let the one or two good relationships I had with people on the forum slip a bit. The other problem with WeBook is it has some very talented people on there, and a whole load of angsty teenagers writing paranormal romance fan fiction who get a bit uppity. I once gave one girl what I thought was a compliment about a piece of prose she’d written, commenting it was very dense in style and similar in some ways to a prose poem. I got a tirade of abuse back about not knowing what I was talking about, this was a STORY not a prose poem, it was real, it was the way she felt inside, who was I to judge??? Yeah, at that point I became a lot more selective about who I spoke to.
Last week I joined the Authonomy website as I thought that would be a good forum for sharing ideas and getting constructive criticism. I can’t say I’m impressed. The main thrust of the site is to get your work into a top ten so it’s reviewed by a Harper Collins editor. You do this by getting others to read and back your work. In the first 24 hours I had about twenty messages urging me to check out other people’s books and back them. Not critique them, not offer feedback, BACK them. I also got a message from a bitter writer on there telling me not to waste my time playing the stupid game that is Authonomy, I’ll just be wasting my time because it doesn’t go anywhere. I don’t care if an editor at Harper Collins reads my manuscript, I’m kind of past the dreams of being picked up by a publishing house now, I just want to write and have some people read it. But if there is no sharing of ideas or opinions, then it doesn’t seem like it’s the right place for me to be.
In contrast, I joined YouWriteOn yesterday. I put up the prologue and the first two and a half chapters of Hinterland and within an hour I had a review with some really valid points which I’m thrilled with. (I use ‘fuck’ too often and it feels a bit forced at times; there is too much dialogue in my exposition in chapter 2; the fallout of one of the incidents doesn’t quite ring true and could do with tweaking). Brilliant. I’m really really happy. The site doesn’t have a promotion function, it doesn’t even have a message function (which is kind of a shame as I wanted to thank my reviewer). There is a structure whereby your work gets into a top ten for editorial review, but it’s done in a much better way. You have to get five reviews and you get ranked on the scoring of them. To get a review, you have to review something else. You ask for reading assignments. Each assignment then gives you one credit and that credit can then be used to make your work available to someone else requesting a reading assignment to generate credits for themselves. Brilliant. You can then go and leave free will reviews for things that didn’t come to you via assignments, but obviously, you don’t have to do that if you don’t want to. It’s a bit more anonymous, the reviewing structure is stripped of its self-promotional motivation and it works to get people engaged and working with each other. The site itself looks like shit, but functionally I think it’s exactly what I’ve been looking for.
I’m still waiting on my review from Book Pleasures (I think I mentioned it in an earlier post) and I’m looking forward to seeing what is said there. Obviously, I’m torn as I want an honest opinion, I really do, but if they say it’s rubbish that review then sits there forever and damages my sales. Please let it be 3 stars… How needy am I?