August 26th, 2009


Pondering the nature of reviews and promotion.

With Rosemary and Rue [Amazon]|[Mysterious Galaxies] approaching its official release date, and with my evenings spent neck-deep in The Brightest Fell, aka, "Toby five," aka, "the book I am writing partially as a form of informing the universe that it really needs to give me the sales to sustain a long series," it's only natural that my thoughts should be turning to reviews and promotion. I have Google spiders set to tell me whenever my name or the title of my book get mentioned—they aren't perfect, but they do pretty well—and I try not to let myself obsess too much about my Goodreads ranking or Amazon sales number. (These are not easy things to avoid obsessing over. I admit that. But a girl can still try.) This has led, of course, to contemplation.

Do I like reviews? Well, yeah. What author doesn't like reviews? Especially since I'm a shiny new author, which means reviews will have a genuine impact on my sales—I'll read the new Kelley Armstrong regardless of what the reviewers say, because I know she does what I like, but I didn't pick up Jeri Smith-Ready (who is also made of awesome) until I started hearing people I trusted saying good things about her. I especially appreciate the fact that, now that we have the wonders of the Internet, everybody can be a reviewer. I mean, yes, that means that people like me, whose credentials are questionable at best, are allowed to express our opinions with apparent authority, but it also means that there's a range. I'm a lot more likely to trust a product whose reviews have a range than I am a product only discussed in the most glowing of terms. At a certain point, the "does your book cure cancer?" blinders kick on.

Which brings me to today's actual topic: what constitutes "going too far" where reviews are concerned? I regularly solicit the readers of this blog to post reviews, and while I'm not going to hunt people down and make sad eyes at them if they post something really negative, the odds are pretty good that if you're here, you're well-inclined to like my writing, or at least play nicely. (Not always, mind you. No one is nastier to my favorite authors than I am when I feel like they've lost the thread. At the same time, because they're my favorite authors, even before I adopted my "post no negative reviews" position, I was likely to not say anything at all.) Now, I don't think this is being uncool. It's not like I'm paying people, and it's not like I can actually force anyone. Also, I told my mother she's not allowed to post a review. I have done what I can.

At the same time, there are ways that some people really abuse the review system. Let's take a hypothetical book called Mary Sue Goes to Mordor. It's published through a small press, but it has Amazon distribution, and the author—like all authors—has the understandable desire to see the book succeed. Without a major press, it's very unlikely that there will be many review copies kicking around, and almost certain that there won't be a big press campaign. So it's all word-of-mouth and Amazon reviews. It's natural that the mind might turn to thoughts of upping those numbers, just a little...just to even the playing field, as it were.

So now Mary Sue Goes to Mordor has fifteen reviews, all of them five-star, all of them heaping praise on the book in a glowing manner. Often mentioning not only the author in superlative terms, but also praising the publisher for "doing it again," perhaps in hopes that this will lead curious readers to click through to other titles by the same publisher. Where does the line lie beyond which the reviews are simply impossible to trust? How many "reinventing the world of fantasy" comments can be taken before the book crosses the line into "not with a ten foot pole"?

No, Mary Sue Goes to Mordor isn't the title of a real book, although it sounds like it would be similar in concept to The Wizard, the Witch, and Two Girls from Jersey, which was a disturbing amount of fun. So if I saw Mary Sue Goes to Mordor on the shelf, I'd probably give it a read. This question basically comes from a combination of a) chasing my own reviews around the Internet, watching to see what critical response will actually be, and b) seeing several books take the hypothetical approach above—the one where half the reviews just read like they were written by the same guy changing accounts as quickly as he could.

There are lines. The lines are funky. I'm going to quote David Edelman here, and say: "Don't post glowing reviews of your books on Amazon under assumed names. Don't start up your own fan websites. Don't go through the phone book and call bookstores anonymously asking if they stock this amazing new book you've just heard about. In fact, any time a marketing activity involves the use of pseudonyms, that should raise a red flag."

And now I'm going to link to his fantastic essay, A Guide to Ethical Self-Promotion.

And now that I've thought my thinky thoughts for tonight, I'm going to go to bed.