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A collection of snippets of the books I write and, occasionally, my life and the things that inspire my writing...

Friday, January 27, 2012

Book Reviews: Better Than a Rating System?

Disclaimer:  This post pertains to fiction ebooks. Names of books and authors have not been included--thereby protecting the innocent (and the guilty).  And, since I am not yet published,  I write this wearing a reader's hat. Okay, it has a matching writer's scarf.  I do love the craft...

I start this post with a heavy sigh, even while knowing you will be tempted to click the back button on your browser.  But, questions that seem unanswerable do tend to make me sigh.Where to begin? Where to begin...

While spending a great deal of time alone today at work, I did a lot of thinking.  My job is often like that--solitary.  And as they often do, my thoughts drifted in and out of the writing world. Today, it was not so much my own little writing corner, but more about the writing world at large.

Let me back up and tell you what started my thought train. I downloaded an eBook yesterday evening and immediately started to read it. Wow! I was turning those digital pages as quickly as I could read the words. As I was being reeled in by the action and the terror of this dystopian world, it occurred to me that the author was changing point of view quite often.

Hmm...it was a self-published book. Is this part of the crap that I so often read about on writer's blogs? Nah...not a book this engaging.  Today, out of curiosity, I went back to Amazon to double-check the reviews before I wrote this post. Over 200-- and standing at four and a half stars.  Nobody has THAT many friends and relatives ready to put up a shill review.

It was just the tip of the iceberg for me in this whole, enormous, reading/writing/publishing journey I have undertaken.

And, I must confess, just when I start to think I know something about this r/w/p world, I realize I know next to nothing.  I could go on confessing...there again, nah. Perhaps another day :-)

During the last year, my writing journey has intensified greatly.  It was one year ago that I entered ABNA for the first time. I didn't enter this year, because this year I understand that I really have nothing ready to go.  Last year, I was too ignorant of good writing to realize it.  And now, it is painfully obvious to me when a writer publishes their work--at a quality level of which they are too ignorant to comprehend--just like me a long year ago.

But, no regrets...ABNA was a wonderful experience that propelled me forward into the online writing community. And it nudged me to explore the writing world at large.

I began reading blogs--even created my own, and put myself in sponge mode--to absorb every little drop of meaningful advice that was offered.  The writing community is a generous one.  And there was not a better time to have begun to spread my wings, readying to fly with my writing.  But I had to fly fast--like everyone else who was trying to keep up with the near-daily changes. The landscape is shifting so quickly in the publishing industry that no one is sure where we all will be when the dust settles.

In my travels from blog to blog, when I read a post, I also read the comments that follow.  And there has been a recurring question asked, and then opined upon...over and over again.  "What to do about the crap that is being self-published?  The stuff that is clogging up Amazon and other sites that sell ebooks?  The real writers can't find their way out to stand at the top--to be noticed."

I understand what they are saying; I have read excerpts that made me feel bad for the authors. Have they no idea?  Then I remind myself that everyone has a story--some of them (us) have many that they (we) just can't help but share. :-)

But, I am not here to pick arguments, and I am not here to take sides.  And on some blogs I have visited, it is apparent that sides are forming.

I have read suggestions that there be some type of rating body, or a system that books are rated on, bearing some sort of mark of quality.  Hmm?  Are we trying to put up another gate to replace the one that the big six have had for years and years? The one through which only a minute number of writers ever made it?

I don't mean to diminish the enormity of their success--just making it through was magnificent--and a testament to their work, their dedication, their expertise...their education...

But, is there something more?  How do we define good and bad writing?  How do we define what is good and what is crap?  How do we define a person's sense of story?

It seems there is a huge disconnect between readers-- and the writers who cross every "t" and dot every "i".  It appears that understanding the correct way--the taught way to write, is not as important to many readers as it is to the writers who are clamoring for a way to rate books.  A system that will allow the stellar to stand in front of the not so stellar.

But, to be fair, there are storytellers among us who just don't know very much about grammar and punctuation.  There are people who are passionate about their stories--but the last English class they sat in was in high school. There are people typing away (right now, I bet), who have never once sat in a creative writing class.  Maybe they have never read The Elements of Style, never heard of The Chicago Manual of Style .  Maybe they hated English, but love to read--and their mind can't stop creating stories.

And it is prudent to consider the written standard--that nearly everything has.  It is the reference, the thing we come back to when we need to analyze, to double-check, to see if we are slipping away from the right way to do things. I understand the importance of a written standard.

Yet, in visual art, we can be taught a certain way to do things, a "method".  But our finished product is much less often judged on, and defined by, the written standard from which the artist was taught.  There is an acceptance for crude expression form.

And music.  I smile--there are some pretty successful artists out there producing something which I cringe to call music.  And I am awfully sure that those artists never sat in a music theory class.  But their work sells.  And it sells because it entertains someone.

I don't know what the answer is, but it worries me that anyone would presume a design for standardized rating of books-- based upon content quality, could be done in a fair manner. Such arbitrary judgement begs the question... who among us is worthy to judge?  Who among us is worthy to set the specs--the standards that must be met to earn a certain rating?  Who will provide the screening of the books' quality?  Who will pay for it all?

Having said all that, I am sensitive to the frustrations of  the many who are mired in a sea of ebook mediocrity. And there is mediocrity in abundance--along with  worse. And how can authors with exceptional books be noticed in an already over-saturated ebook market?

That last question exists for all ebook authors, too.  Even the ones who write "crap", yearn to be read.

The book I began to read last night (and will return to as soon as I post this blog) is a fine example of someone who did not follow the rules. Yet, I say without reservation, even if they don't know the term or the definition for it--are quite capable of motivating people to "suspend their disbelief".

I have read traditionally published books that, although, every letter and symbol was exactly where it should have been,  put me to sleep. I have, for years, read traditionally published books written by authors who I think might have been resting on their laurels.  Where was the story? 

What to do? As long as there is a buck to be made, companies will provide a means for writers to self-publish.  Demanding anything more or less--to me, smacks of censorship. "Just sayin..."

And I think that ultimately, any type of rating has to come from the reviews--from the people who read the books--or start to read them--then don't finish.

I don't know about you guys, but I read the reviews before I buy a book.  And if they aren't shining reviews, I probably won't buy it.  But, in all honesty...if I read a review that told me the story was excellent but the grammar or punctuation needed some work, I'd likely still read the excerpt to see if it was actually distracting. If it wasn't? For a good story, I'd still buy the book.

As  a writer, I encourage others, rather than discourage.  And I hope that my honest criticisms of their work would serve to motivate them to improve...to reach for a higher place.

In the same line of thinking, I add that just tonight, my son's girlfriend and I were talking about books. We recommend good reads to each other, and warn each other away from bad ones. I told her about the book I started reading last night. Then she told me that she has found so many bad ebooks, it makes her mad to waste her time.  She had just read the beginning of another one and was disgusted--and will not continue reading it.

I asked her if she wrote a review.  And then, as a good member of the writing community, <smile> told her that there are guidlines available online for writing a review--since she has never written one and seemed sort of shy. Ha! I act like the grand master of reviews. I have written four--but will write many more now that the importance has become tantamount to how to sort out the wheat from the chaff.

Then I talked a little bit about writing reviews, being your own person and sharing your honest opinion, not insulting other reviewers when you disagree with them,  explaining why you liked or didn't like the book.  And the big one: never get personal about the author. <big smile>

Any thoughts out there?


  1. Teresa, you know I am just a tad prejudice concerning you but your writing always tells a story and captures my attention. (hard to do) It is all about the story, getting my attention and keeping it. I have started reading more lately and have branched out in my choice of materials. I have been pleasantly surprised. I do use the reviews by major critics as a reference. True, everybody has a story but it does not necessarily mean they should be telling it or that they have the ability to do so. There are only so many gifts given. We cannot all be so honored. Good luck to you my lovely friend and let nothing or nobody stand in your way. (hugs)

  2. Great post. I have mixed feelings. There are a lot of fake reviews out there - look at any indie author in the top 100 and you'll find what we call "one-hit-wonders" which are people (some say other authors) who open multiple accounts, slam the top 100 with 2-1 one star reviews immediately after every 4/5 star just to bring ratings down. Some say it's so their own books will look better -- I can't judge, because I don't know. But I do know that reviews are important if you can weed through the ones that are obviously not "real" (negative and/or positive).

    As for writing - I love what you said and it definitely has merit. I do believe, though, that all published works should be professionally edited. Every reader deserves a well edited book. Maybe that doesn't mean that the editor catches all the nuances of perfect writing (ie headhopping), but at least editorially it should be written with correct grammer, punctuation, etc.

    Just my two cents, and I'll probably be slammed with one-stars after this, but I really enjoyed your post. Thank you for sharing.

  3. My dear friend, Marsy...your encouragement means so much to me--you have no idea. And I am glad to read that you are branching out. There is so much to read...and so little time, Can you imagine living in the day when the only book in the house was a bible? I imagine that the lack of storybooks and other fiction books made for some incredible storytelling, though...when people were starved for entertainment. I am humbled by your kind words. Thank you so much, dear girl... I will email in the near future. Hugs right back :-)

  4. This was really interesting - I'm glad you wrote it. Poor writing will turn me off right away. I've bought several ebooks lately for my Kindle and stopped reading very early on. It makes me mad to waste my money, and even when they are free, it makes me mad to waste my time. You raise so many great points and thoughts here. I don't have the answer about reviews - we can only go on what is there and hope for the best. But assuming authors plan to write more than one book, they can't get away with subterfuge for long. If I tried a book that had all great ratings and it was poorly written, then I won't be fooled twice. A good book is such a treasure, so when I find one, I tell everyone!

  5. Hi Melissa (Foster) ...thank you for taking the time to read this. I know how busy you are!

    When I saw your post on twitter, I smiled at the subject coincidence of my recent post here. You are a shining example of what they (the big six--Harper Collins included) have to fear.

    The reviews--the shill reviews? I imagine that many readers are duped by them. We (writers) would all hope that readers are savvy enough to check total number of reviews, actually read the reviews, and then be suspect if the words seem contrived, oddly vague, or brief--but include 5 stars. I like to read the 1 and 2 star reviews, also, keeping in mind that those bad reviews can sometimes tell me a lot more about the reader than about the book. A review that gets insulting or personal earns no credibility with me.

    I think you have some of those reviews. And the few you have are so out of place, so off the mark with all the others, that I sort of figured that they were written by trolls. I hope that potential readers can see that.

    I wish that every book could be professionally edited. And some of the grammar and punctuation I have read makes me shudder to think about the editing work that SHOULD have been done to it. But, it is so out of the budget for many writers. And many of them are not aware of the resources to get help with editing.

    This is another observation. I think that many readers have a small place in their minds where they add to the stories they read--their imaginations kick in. And when that imagination switch is kicked on, they create their own stories...their own personal tales. (Conjecture follows) Then, they pick up a "Kindle Touch with Special Offers" for a hundred dollars. And in the default index, there is a selection to Publish on Kindle. So they read it, and it is suddenly obvious that anyone can publish a book. Anyone. Even them.

    I don't mean to sound snobby. I only point out that although these people might be capable of creating incredible stories, they are likely quite naive about what it takes to create a really good book. And I say that out of experience. There was a time when I was just that naive. I slowed down, thank goodness, after being awakened by a form rejection letter. And now I am benefiting from the generosity of people like you who share so much by just giving and giving to the writing community. BUT, Joe reader with his new Kindle has no idea that you exist, or the writing community--with the many critique groups and forums available to help. And since they can go directly to self-publishing, they don't have to know about the writing community. They have never received that form rejection letter because they never had to.

    *sigh* I don't know. I guess whether or not they continue to write and self-pub depends upon their motivation to write. If it is to receive praise, or make money, their self-pubbing will probably be short-lived. If it just to write, well...perhaps there are better places to do it, but :-) as long as Kindle is willing and free...

    Ratings manipulation-- sad, but agree that it does go on. I am not sure how to stop it--if there is even a way. Sometimes the veil of online anonymity works in some pretty disappointing ways.

    I still wonder at how people think that a rating system could be implemented. I will be watching for more posts about this. It is such an exciting, amazing, and volatile time for writers!

    I have "Chasing Amanda" on my Kindle. I hope to get to it in the near future. "Come Back to Me" is receiving such wonderful reviews--it will be my next purchase. And "Megan's Way"... I am waffling. I think it might be too sad for me. :-)

    Thank you for all that you do for the writing community.

  6. Thanks you for giving this a read, Melissa (Goodwin). I know how busy you are these days, too!

    Poor writing--it seems that everyone has a different level of tolerance for it. Or, (I could get lambasted for this) everyone has a different level of education, a different cognizance of correct grammar and punctuation. I am starting to suspect that people are satisfied with punctuation and grammatical proficiency at their own level--and above. I don't have an English Language Education background--which may very well account for my own stated tolerance of poverty in that area--as long as a good story is involved.

    Your words, "But assuming authors plan to write more than one book, they can't get away with subterfuge for long." Wow...said a mouthful. And I do hope for that to be the case. I am going to make a very capitalist statement. :-) Money talks, money buys. And if the reviews aren't good, it "ain't" selling. If a person has their wits about them, they will explore why it isn't selling--the reviews should give them an idea. And then they will explore the writing community and get the knowledge that they need.

    Good books are treasures! I so agree... :-)

    I see that your reviews are wonderful. I loved your book and look forward to the sequel. And I read that you will be traveling through Pennsylvania (I live in western PA) this autumn. Will you post your itinerary as the time draws near? I do plan on talking with the head of the community library to see if they are open to an author's visit. I hope we get to meet!

  7. Theresa, we WILL be coming through Pennsylvania in the fall - I think it is October. We're going to stay in Amish country - Intercourse, PA for a week and I also want to go over to Shanksville to see the 911 memorial there. That's just a couple of days. Depending on where you are relative to those, we might be able to make that happen - I'd love to!! You can email me at melissaanngoodwin@yahoo.com if you like. I would love to meet you. I know you enjoyed my book and I appreciate your wonderful (unsolicited :-) review. I can honestly say that I know who some of the people who reviewed my book are, but their opinions were all their own! I think it's important to keep it honest, not just for the readers, but for one's own soul. xo

  8. P.S. Tell me the name of the library and I will donate a copy or two of my book to them now. xo

  9. Beautifully written piece Teresa!

    I know I am no authority where wonderful writers like yourself speak- but being a freelance writer I have also read a few ebook and would agree to what you say in the post. Thing nowadays have indeed taken a shift in the way writers write, and I have also noticed that just about everyone and anyone comes up with an ebook on the drop of a hat, whether they really have the know-how of writing, nor care much about the punctuation or grammar!

    It does become really tough to decipher from the good and bad and I agree with your sons girlfriend there- it does turn out to be quite a time waste at times.

    I do read book reviews, though have never written one myself as I really have never really had the chance to read a complete book myself, something that would really grasp my attention. I would look for some recommendations from people, or would wait for others to talk about a book or judge by its excerpts before really spending my time (which I truly never have due to my writing career)reading through it or writing about it. It really be something worth the while!

    Thanks so much for bringing about this topic- it does make one wonder :)

  10. What a great and wonderfully written post, Teresa. I'm a bit torn when it comes to the subject of self-publishing. One the one hand I'm very happy for the naive and mediocre writers (I consider myself being one of them) having a chance to "loophole" their way into publishing. One the other hand, when I read the end products that actually find their way in the ebook market, I think that for many, a blog would be a much more suitable platform to broadcast ideas, especially when you haven't had many years of practice. You can learn a lot from the feedback of other, more experienced writers. I think it's the idea, that writing should immediately turn into a cash-cow, that is so appaling to me. Like every other craft it needs a lot of work before it pays off, if at all.. *sighs*

  11. Melissa, email sent :-) I think that is wonderful--that you donate to libraries :-)

  12. Hi Harleena! Thanks for taking the time to read this :-) My husband and I wonder about the changing style of writing. How much do texting shortcuts take away from a person's concept of good writing skills? We really think that written language is going through an incredible revolution. A major upheaval--creating a no less dramatic difference between writing in the last century and writing a decade ago. The style--the choice of vocabulary, even spelling that was considered fine 70 years ago is so different than now. A decade has changed SO much in how people communicate. I wonder, too, if it will ever slow down?

    All fascinating. And one question leads to another when we start to ask and wonder about it all.

    If I may make a book recommendation? A rather quick read that I really enjoyed and was thought provoking, "The Five People You Meet In Heaven" by Mitch Albom. I like his style, but most of all, I like his sense of humanity. Have been a fan of his since I first read "Tuesdays With Morrie". It is not a lesson about god at all. It doesn't matter if you are a Christian, Atheist, Buddhist, etc. The message is for humans, period. Anyway, you would then be able to say you read a complete book--and it would have been a fine one. :-)

  13. Daniela, thank you! And thanks for reading this--I know how busy you are. :-)
    "...I think that for many, a blog would be a much more suitable platform to broadcast ideas..." Yes. I agree. I think that people fall under some sort of "spell" when it comes to being able to say they have written and published a book. "I am published." must be a mighty powerful phrase to some. And I understand what you say about us having a chance to "loophole" our way into being published. Granted, compared to some, we may very well be naive and mediocre, but we have self-awareness to the point that we aren't racing to get something out there while forfeiting real quality just to do so. I think some people are in that big of a hurry. And I think that there are some who just have no awareness. :-( I guess it matters what is the true motivation--and what is the real hoped for response to the writing. One thing about blogs--we tend to attract an audience of our peers, and often (and this overjoys me) they tend to be intellectual equals along with kindred spirits. If we accept that--then extrapolate--if someone is writing a blog using texting shortcuts, and ignoring any sense of story, of pacing, of character development, etc. their readership is likely to reflect their own approach to grammar, punctuation, and opinion of story crafting (maybe). And the blog author gets pleasant comments for his efforts. So, if they move on to the published world--and are available on Amazon as most self-pubbed authors are, they are suddenly thrust into the arena, and the lions are set upon them. Hmm...gives me pause. I have to tell you--I am scared to death of the reviews by strangers, after I finally decide that, enough--this book is ready to go. I think that is why I am still dragging my feet. My personal hopes are to develop a readership, develop some fans who truly enjoy my work--and yes, then tell me so ;-) I will never get rich from writing. And that is okay. I think I write interesting stories, and I think that they have made Alpha and Beta readers cry, laugh, blush, and get angry. So, that gives me additional pause--to not alienate readers with an out-of-the-gate dud that leaves them cursing my name, lol... But, if a person is unaware of the lack of quality in any aspect of their writing--they likely are not considering long term implications of their published work.

    Back to the blog--we can learn a lot from the feedback of others--and a blog is a wonderful place to do it. Once that book is out there for sale--everything you learn from feedback is on a larger stage with more at risk. Blogs are wonderful...a great platform. And we are just as surely published when we click "publish" on our blog-posts--as we are when we publish on the Kindle platform--or any of the other eBook formats.

    All interesting..and as usual, you add some great food for thought. This reminds me, you have a post I need to get back to. :-)

    Holy cats! lol, I just read back over this comment--and I am not sure but I think I might be able to say that I wrote another novel, now. :-)

  14. Wow, that's what I call an in-depth comment :) I can very much relate to what you said. Being criticized is really what scares me the most. At the same time, if what I'm writing is truly horrible, I need someone to tell it to me straight. But then again, who except a fellow writer will openly comment on someone else's writing skills? And.. I'm so afraid to ask to be criticized.. for someone might slap me in the face with a big book ;) I know that as a writer it is vital and I really want to constantly work on my craft also, but I completely understand the hesitation.. these lions are wolves :) I'm nowhere near that stage of even thinking about it. But you, Teresa... does it help if I tell you that I would truly be afraid to tell you the basic outline of my story, because I think you would do a much better job in the execution than I? I just hope, that the realization that there are so many talented people out there will never stop me from writing. :)

  15. :-) I just hope that when our days come--and we have the lions set upon us--that we have developed thick hides. I think that an author can write an excellent book and still get wicked reviews. Not everyone likes everything. As my comment to you on facebook shows--I am reading books outside of the fantasy/SciFi genres that I love so much. I am going to read (again) how to critique a book that is not an appealing genre. But, reading this book is a good reminder for me that it is tough to give a fair critique to something that never caught your interest in the first place :-) The author, though, is a dear person and writes so well. I totally enjoy their blog.

    When I take that step into the world of being published, I really expect that I will get bashed (even unfairly) at times. But, if it happens over and over again...well, it will be advice I should heed, no matter how callously it has been delivered. And I have read some mighty ugly reviews on Amazon; readers have no qualms about getting personal.

    When I think about just walking away...I get this image of me when I am 90, in a nursing home, full of regret--wishing I had done it. I can't let that happen.

    And you shouldn't either. :-)

    When I was about 17 years old, a wonderful teacher had us read a poem. I can't recall much, except that it was written by a woman in her 80s. And one line has stuck with me all of these years... "I should have followed more rainbows". Yep, that is what dreams are...they are following rainbows. And I know that if we work hard enough and dream hard enough, we will get there.

    And I think of Clarissa Pinkola Estes' book "Women Who Run With the Wolves", in which she tells about the wild spirit that lives inside of us, that has been oppressed and stifled and molded into what benefits men, and benefits cultures run for centuries, by men. Anyway, one of the symptoms of this repression is never feeling as if your work, your creation--is god enough to show to others.

    Might have a bit of repression :-) Or a bit of common sense ;-) Ha! Maybe a touch of both, huh? :-)

    We will get there!

    A question for you: At work one day last week, during lunch I took a quick peek at Blogger and thought I saw that you had posted a snippet of your novel. But when I got home and had time to read things--not just gloss over the titles, I didn't find it. Maybe I am imagining it. I just did not want you to think that I wouldn't read it and then leave a comment. :-)

    I am off to edit for a while. Have a great week.

  16. Yes, thanks for reminding me, here it is.
    By the way, I almost threw up when I clicked the publish button for this particular post.. but that's just me, a bundle of page fright, nerves and caffeine :) In general, I don't get that many comments (except for hubby and you, of course, and sometimes Conrad chimes in:)but seeing just a simple "like" gives me some sort of relief, and the reassurance, that I didn't do a completely horrible job. I feel like an addict with all the approval and "like" cravings :) Anyway, what I wanted to say was that the absolute silence after posting this little snippet made me think the worst. It really showed me that I am far from ready to go public with my stuff, at least with the novel. I need more leathery skin I guess - thick enough for a sharp Japanese knife to bounce off and leave me unharmed! :)
    But now, you really gave me something to think about with the saying about the rainbows..it's so true! Even a terrifying experience is an opportunity. Putting yourself out there is a vital part to get those experiences. It made me think that every memory I have, whether I fell on my face or rose to the occasion, is ultimately good (not necessarily while it happens, but in retrospect all of them became precious at some point) So thank you for that, I'll be sure to remember it and follow those rainbows! And I'll let you get back to your editing now (with "now" being a relative term in this particular space and time we're in) :)