Talking Story

It’s all about the buzz.

For an author, once a debut novel has a publication date it’s no longer about writing, it’s about marketing. A large amount of time and energy is spent by publishers on getting the book in front of People Who Matter, begging them to first read it and then, cross your fingers, positively review it in blogs, book reviews, online services, catalogs–anywhere, really, where people who buy books might find out about your book and want to pick it up.

As a debut author, one thing I’ve been asked to do by Jolly Fish Press is to develop relationships within the middle grade/young adult authors’ community. They suggested I join various readers’ and writers’ online groups, read and review books for other authors, and generally play nice with others. It’s a lot like fourth grade where you get invited to birthday parties based on who you invited to yours.

No problem, I thought. As much as I read, I can easily knock out a couple of book reviews a week. Glad to help other writers.

So I started reading and reviewing books on websites for debut and often self-published authors, the ones most willing to share their work and hungry for the buzz.

Words fail. After a few weeks and a couple dozen books later, it wasn’t just the grammar or misspelling or unintentional malaprop or errors with homophones throughout the texts–those can be easily fixed. The problems in these books were larger and more fundamental. Often there was no plot or even characters that made me care about what happened to them. There was no story. Reading those books was like having a conversation with my autistic nephew, perfectly clear in his mind and utterly confused in mine.

I wanted to be supportive; I really did. I tried to find good things to say about the novels, but when all I could honestly say is “I liked the cover” I knew I had to take a time out. I didn’t want to discourage people from writing, but I also didn’t want to say something was good when I couldn’t honestly recommend it to anyone.

I’m having a hard time figuring out my role here. I’m not the author’s editor, mother, or cheerleader. I’m not a credentialed book reviewer with followers hanging on my every word, which should make my opinion rather unimportant. However, I’ve seen “bad” reviews on some of these websites turn into ugly name-calling fests involving the reviewer, the author, the best friend, the mother, and sometimes even the publisher–reminding me again of fourth grade.  I believe if you publish you should be grown-up enough to realize not everyone is going to like your work and that arguing, explaining, and name-calling never changes anyone’s opinion. It’s obvious that not everyone feels this way.

If I could only publish reviews about books that I liked, it would be much simpler. Unfortunately, these burgeoning author websites insist that if you get a free copy–e-book or print–you basically have to publicly review it or you’ll get kicked out of the club.

Be nice or else.

Which is unfortunate for everybody–readers, authors, and reviewers. If every indie, self-published, or small press book is four or five stars and fantastic, the reviews are meaningless and we’re back to relying on the opinions of the People Who Matter.

How ironic.

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