Reviews: The good, the bad and the ugly

Ah, reviews. The bane of an author’s existence. Can’t live with ‘em, can’t live without ‘em as they say.

For me there is a clear distinction between professional reviews (Publisher’s Weekly, newspapers, other trade media), semi-professional reviews (blog sites, ARC reviews), and reader reviews (Goodreads, Amazon etc.). The first two categories, I have a vested interest in. These are reviewers who generally follow some criteria, standards or provide reviews of value. These I follow and share when appropriate.

But as an author, I tend to ignore reader reviews and stay away from them. I’ve always felt that once I put the book out there, it’s out of my hands. Sure I want people to like it (I love when readers write me to tell me they enjoyed something), and yes it hurts like hell when they don’t, but I don’t see it as my job to police readers’ opinions. I have far too many other things to stress over (like writing the next book). It’s not that their reviews don’t matter, because on sites like Amazon they do, it’s that when it comes to readers, there are so many variants and so much subjectivity involved that in a way reviews become meaningless. One person’s five star review may be another’s three star. How can that be meaningful?

Which brings me to the dreaded one-star review. I admit I don’t understand this reader. And I definitely don’t understand the ones who intentionally one-star everything. They are clearly not book lovers. Book lovers know that a particular book may not be to their taste, but they generally appreciate the work that went into producing the book. As an avid reader myself, the only time I would ever make the effort to low ball a review is if I felt particularly betrayed or deceived, as in the description didn’t match the content. Or the book was unreadable. Like many people, if I simply didn’t enjoy the book or it wasn’t to my taste, I don’t bother writing a review. I mean, if I went to the trouble of buying the book, there was clearly something there that drew me. I’m not going to buy something knowing in advance that it’s not for me.

Many of these one-star reviews have very little “review” content to them, so the goal is obviously not to help other readers in their selections. And most “legitimate” readers know enough to take one-star reviews with a grain of salt now. Does the reviewer do it to hurt the author, either through sales or psychologically? Or are they just bitter, angry people who have nothing better to do?

I have some theories about the routine one-star reviewer. I envision them as the type of person who doesn’t leave a tip when eating out, despite the fact that they’ve made their server jump through hoops and asked for all sorts of substitutions and accommodations in their meal. They’re the type of person who is always angry or unhappy about something. My other theory is that these micro-aggressions are a form of bullying, and we all know that bullies are generally bullied themselves. Picking on others is how they lash out at what’s going on in their own lives. So, I guess if writing dozens of anonymous one-star reviews is what gets you off, then knock yourself out—there are clearly bigger issues at work.

I see so many authors decrying the one-star review, and yet it’s the “fake” glowing five-star reviews that get me riled up the most. We don’t talk about these ones. There is a whole industry out there built on writing fraudulent favourable reviews, never mind champions looking to bump up an author’s profile with too-generous reviews. A struggling author can be tempted to look at another author’s reviews and go “Huh?” But we can’t speak out against those for fear of looking jealous or vindictive. While I rarely use reader reviews to guide my own reading choices, I’ll often take a look at them after the fact out of simple curiosity. More than once, I’ve thought “Really? That was a five-star read?” I’m not just talking about subjectivity here, I’m talking about books riddled with errors rating five stars. These readers either have lower standards than I do, or there is something fishy going on.

What’s my point here? There is no win-win when it comes to readers’ reviews. Some are good; some are bad. They’re subjective, written with bias and in some cases, agendas. But that’s the risk you take with putting words out there. Authors, stay out of them. Readers, like with any product, do your due diligence.

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Back to You

It’s that time again. When I have to step out of my introverted, wallflower shoes and jump on the self-promotion trail.

June 12 marks the publication of my third novel, Back to You. Back to You is a novel of romantic suspense, about a man who returns home to be at his estranged father’s deathbed and reconnects with his childhood friend and possibly first love, Benji. But a twenty-year old secret could spell the end of their budding romance before it even begins. It’s got dysfunctional families, small town secrets, a bit of a mystery, and first loves.

I’m always proud of my work for different reasons, but Back to You really represents the direction I see myself headed—a blend of romance and fiction. I was a little uncertain about how the romance would be received as it is secondary to the plot, but the early reviews have been good so far. Publisher’s Weekly specifically mentioned “the author’s deft plotting and prose, skillful uses of red herrings, and strong character development”.

I always feel I should be more excited than I am on release day. It’s not that I’m not happy, or grateful, or anxious to see how it’s received, but I’ve been carrying this baby around for a year and a half and mostly I just can’t wait for it to be delivered to the reading public.

To give you an idea of how long it takes me from inception to publication, I started plotting Back to You way back in December 2015. That took about two months, and writing didn’t actually begin until February 2016. My internal target was to finish by September 2016, and although my publisher was aware of what I was working on and had reviewed my synopsis, I didn’t sign a contract at that time. I’m always hesitant to contract a book too early in advance in case life happens. To me there is nothing worse than breaking my word and missing a deadline. At any rate, by spring it was clear I was on target, so I signed a contract with Riptide and delivered the first draft of the manuscript in September 2016. That led to an extensive editing and re-write phase between January and April 2017, and then finally release in June! It’s no wonder that by the time a book makes it to market I’ve lost a bit of enthusiasm.

Check out my virtual book tour June 12-17 where I’ll be giving away a $20 Riptide gift certificate. The complete list of dates and participating blogs can be found on the Riptide website:   https://riptidepublishing.com/events/tours/back-you-blog-tour-chris-scully

I’ll be wrapping up the week on June 17 at 1pm EDT with an author take over on the Queeromance Ink Facebook page where I’ll be giving away some signed paperback copies. https://www.facebook.com/groups/queeromanceink/

 

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Of writing contests and self-promotion

Generally, I’m not a fan of contests of any sort. Possibly because I have the worst luck when it comes to those types of things, and as someone who’s never been top or best anything there’s likely some internalized, deep-seated bitterness at work too. Book contests in particular make me cringe. For me personally as a reader they do little to influence my selections, but they can hold a lot of sway for others, so as a writer you can’t just ignore them.

Last year I decided to take a chance and enter my gay romance novel Until September (Riptide Publishing) in a couple of contests. I was proud of my effort and felt it was something that showcased me as a writer. And, I won’t lie, there was a (not so) small part of me seeking validation because it never took off the way I hoped it would. The more logical, rational side of my brain said if all else failed, it would be good exposure and I should look at it as a marketing exercise, especially since I’m terrible at self-promotion. Out of three contests entered, Until September reached the shortlist of one, is a category finalist in another, and didn’t place in the third. Which only goes to prove… absolutely nothing.

Along the way, I learned a few things which I thought I’d capture here.

  • Contests can get expensive, so be selective. Most have some sort of fee to enter. The ethics of paying to enter a contest still trouble me, even in cases when I know the money is going to a good cause. I also understand there needs to be a way to offset costs or cut down on submissions. To ease my conscience, I chose to look at it as paid advertising rather than that I was paying for consideration.
  • It takes a lot of work to run a contest, so follow deadlines and instructions and don’t make the organizers chase you. That’s just inconsiderate and reflects poorly on you.
  • Book contests tend to fall into two camps, popular and literary, and if you don’t fall neatly into either it can still be a challenge to get recognized. It’s important to understand who the committee and judges are and how they are likely to receive your work so you don’t waste your time and/or money. If judges are average readers and your book isn’t geared to mass market, perhaps it’s not the best fit. It would be a bit like submitting an indie film to the People’s Choice Awards.
  • How visible or prestigious is the contest? Some are geared toward the publishing industry, while others are more reader focused. How do those fit with your long term goals and objectives? For myself, I’m trying to raise my profile and get into libraries and bookstores which is why I entered the ones I did.
  • Be prepared for hard feelings. No matter how far you distance yourself from it, or how objective you may try to be, it still feels like a rejection if you don’t make it. Of the three contests, there was one in particular that meant more to me than the others. I longed to not necessarily win, but at least make it to the finals, and when Until September failed to place, it was a crushing blow at a time when I was already struggling with a lack of confidence.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m thrilled Until September has been chosen as a Foreword Reviews’ prestigious Book of the Year Awards finalist in the Romance category! In a competition with over 2200 other entrants, it’s pretty great to have made it this far, and I want to make the most of the opportunity. Despite reigning in my hopes, my fingers are still crossed for the end of June when winners are announced.

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