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Author: Iola

I provide professional freelance manuscript assessment, copyediting and proofreading services for writers of Christian fiction and non-fiction books, stories and articles. I also review Christian novels at www.christianreads.blogspot.com.

Introducing Write!

Introducing Write! (An #AuthorToolBoxBlogHop post)

This post is part of the monthly Author ToolBox Blog Hop, organised by Raimey Gallant. We now have over 40 blogs participating. To find more Blog Hop posts:

Introducing Write!

You know how you sometimes read product reviews where the influencer got given a free copy of the product, and they keep it a couple of weeks and maybe use it a couple of times, then write a glowing five star review?

This is not that kind of review.

I was offered a free copy of Write! to trial and see if I’d like to write a review. I liked the idea of the product, so I agreed. But I’ve taken a little longer to review Write! Ten months, and I’ve been using Write! constantly in that time.

Write is a minimalist online text editor (what we used to call a word processor back when I started using computers).

Write! is available for Windows, Mac, and Linux. It’s easy to learn, simple to use, and the autosave facility with online backup makes it almost impossible to lose your documents.

First, a bit of background. I’ve been using Microsoft Word since around 1993. My employer at the time sent my team on a two-day training course, so I’ve always been confident with the basic and more advanced features of Word, including performing mail merges and creating and using style sheets. Word later introduced features like Track Changes, which have been invaluable in my editing work.

If those are features you are looking for, then stick with Word. Write! is not for you.

Word is great for letters and reports. But it has a lot of extra functionality which means it doesn’t play nice with the kind of lightweight machine I like to use when I travel or write away from home. Light in weight, and light in functionality. So I wanted a matching lightweight word processor I could use away from home.

When I started writing, everyone said Scrivener was the best programme to use. There was the notecard feature. The ability to compile ebook and print files. The drag-and-drop feature which means you can move scenes easily.

I bought Scrivener. I bought the expensive training programme. But I’m not a Scrivener convert. The fancy ideas which sold me on the concept are all things I can do in Word using Styles. (Well, except for compiling print and ebook files. But I can do that for free through Draft2Digital.) Maybe Word isn’t as efficient as in Scrivener, but Word doesn’t have the Scrivener learning curve. It beat me.

If you’ve learned Scrivener and love it, then stick with Scrivener. Write! is not for you.

But I still wanted a simple word processing programme I could use when I’m out and about. Something easy to learn that I could use on my very basic travel PC. (A cheap 32GB tablet-with-clunky-keyboard that replaced my Microsoft Surface, which had Microsoft Office … but no memory left to download Scrivener or store files).

I didn’t want to use Google Docs, because I often want to write somewhere with no internet connection. That helps me not be distracted by Facebook and endless cat memes. I also wanted a product where the letters appear on screen as fast as I type them … not my experience with Google Docs.

So when I was offered a review copy of Write! I was keen to try it out.

The first test was simple: could I load it on my machine?

Yes. I have Write! loaded on the world’s cheapest and ugliest Microsoft tablet. If it loads on this, it should load on anything.

Is Write! easy to use?

Yes. It uses the same keyboard commands as Word and other word processors, which makes them easy to remember (e.g. Ctrl-B or Cmd-B for Bold text).

That was a real plus for me. I don’t want to have to learn another programme. Write! is perfect for me, because it uses the commands I already use automatically.

Basic Formatting

Write! also has basic formatting tools:

  • Cut, copy, and paste
  • Left, centre, and right alignment
  • Bold, italic, underline, and strikethrough font
  • Heading and subhead styles

You can’t customise the heading and subhead styles in Write! the way you can in Word or WordPress, but that doesn’t matter—I see this as a drafting tool, not a publishing tool. An H2 heading in Write! will convert to the customised H2 heading in Word or WordPress. That’s all I need it to do.

SpellCheck

Write! has a basic spellchecker. It’s not as sophisticated as the Word spellchecker (no grammar), but I find the Word spellcheck isn’t right all the time, especially not when it comes to whether a word should have a hyphen or not. And I’m not interested in a grammar checker. I don’t want my computer to question my artistic decision to start a sentence with a conjunction, split an infinitive, or use a sentence fragment.

Autosave

Write! is cloud-based, and everything automatically saves to the hard drive, and to the cloud (when the machine has internet access). Each document is therefore available on all the PCs you have Write! installed on. The screens even look the same, unlike with Windows Online (where I’d lose files because I couldn’t remember where I’d saved it, or Windows “accidentally” saved it to the wrong place).

The fact all files are automatically saved is a big plus for me. Yes, yes, I know Word has an autosave function. But it doesn’t always work (says the sad voice of experience).

Additional Features

Write! also has some additional features which are both simple and useful. There is a focus mode, which lowlights everything except the paragraph you are working on:

Screenshot from Write!

You can also collapse and expand headings to make it easier to navigate through a long document:

Screenshot from Write!
With heading collapsed …

 

… and with headings expanded.

And there is that (optional) handy little side bar on the right which highlights the part of the document you are currently working on.

Can you use Write! for long documents, like a manuscript for a novel?

Yes, as long as you use the H1 and H2 styles to separate out the different scenes or chapters. But you have to do that in Word or Scrivener anyway … I haven’t used Write! for anything longer than 30,000 words. This is mostly because I found that while my H1 and H2 headings translate from Write! into Word, the reverse wasn’t true.

And yes, there is an export function: you can export from Write! to html, docx, pdf, txt, and other file types.

Can you use Write! for multiple documents?

Yes. I routinely keep all my draft blog posts open. You can click into a single document using the header bar, or use Ctrl-Tab to move through all the open documents.

Is there a Mac version?

Yes. Write! is available for Windows, Mac, and Linux.

Is Write! free?

No. But at $24.95 for a lifetime licence, it’s a lot cheaper than many of the alternatives (and there is no requirement to upgrade to get the premium features, as with some “free” apps), and a lot cheaper than, say, Scrivener turned out to be. It’s user-friendly and there are regular upgrades. And you can get 10% off by signing up to their newsletter.

Write! also has an automatic affiliate scheme. The scheme pays a 20% commission, with a minimum payment of $20. (Yes, this post uses affiliate links. Here’s the direct link: www.writeapp.co).

Over the last year, I’ve used Write! to write the first drafts of almost all my book reviews and other blog posts. I can draft the post wherever I am, then paste my draft directly into WordPress. Write! brings across the basic formatting (e.g Bold, H2), which makes it quick and easy to format and publish a blog post.

No, Write! won’t replace Word for editing long documents. But it’s a great alternative for drafting, and it’s simple to learn and use. So if you’re looking for a simple word processor with basic features that can be used online and offline, Write! might be what you’re looking for.

Me? I use it all the time, and I love it.

Thanks to WriteApp for providing a free licence for Write!

Do you have any questions about Write?

How long will it take to edit my novel? And how much will it cost?

Dear Editor | How Long Will it Take to Edit my Novel (And How Much Will It Cost)?

(And How Much Will it Cost?)

This is another question from a Facebook group. An author asked how long it would take her to edit her 80,000-word novel before sending it to a professional editor.

My answer? It depends.

It depends on two things:

  • What level of editing you are doing.
  • The state of the manuscript

The Level of Editing

I discussed the different levels of editing in my recent blog post, Did My Editor Do Their Job Properly?. As a general guide:

  • Developmental editing takes longer than copyediting
  • Line editing takes longer than copyediting
  • Copyediting takes longer than proofreading

It takes me around four hours to read an 80,000-word novel when I’m reading for pleasure. It can take me up to twice as long if I’m reading as part of a Manuscript Assessment, as I’ll be taking detailed notes as I read. It can then take me another four hours to draft the editorial letter, run spellcheck, and proofread the letter before sending.

Actual on-the-page editing will take much longer. It can take me anywhere from 20 to 80 hours to edit an 80,000-word manuscript (depending on whether the manuscript requires line editing or copyediting).

How long it takes me will depend on how good the writing was to begin with, and how much time, effort, and knowledge the author has spent revising and self-editing. That could be anything from 20 to 200 hours. Hint: the more time you spend, the less time it will take a professional editor.

If my sample edit indicates the edit is going to take more longer than 40 hours, I will suggest the author start with a manuscript assessment and undertake more self-editing before engaging me or any other professional editor.

State of the Manuscript

Some authors have an excellent grasp of the basics of punctuation and grammar. Some do not. I’ve had manuscripts submitted for editing that range from almost publication standard to almost unreadable. It doesn’t matter how great your story is, how original your plot, how compelling your characters if you can’t use words and sentences and paragraphs and scenes to get that plot and those characters across to the reader.

I’ve heard writers say they don’t need to know basic grammar, how to punctuate dialogue, or how to correctly use a comma. Their editor will fix that.

Well, yes. But that will make the editing a lot more expensive than it could be.

It also means you’re not giving your editor the chance to do the best job possible—if your editor is focussing on correcting misplaced commas, and trying to work out who is talking so your dialogue is punctuated correctly, then your editor might miss more important errors.

The other problem with submitting a messy manuscript is that the editor might do the work you’ve asked for (e.g copyediting), without realising the manuscript actually isn’t ready for copyediting because one of the main characters has a personality transplant at the halfway point, the pacing is inconsistent, the climax falls fifty pages too early, and the final resolution relies on an eye-rolling “coincidence”.

Don’t be that author. Make sure your manuscript is ready for copyediting before submitting it for copyediting. The best way to do that is to use beta readers, or pay a freelance editor for a manuscript assessment.

How Much Will it Cost to Edit My Novel?

If copyediting an 80,000-word novel will take between 20 and 40 hours, then how much will it cost to edit my novel?

The Editorial Freelancers Association has a schedule of average fees charged by member editors. Editing fees range from $30/hour to $60/hour, depending on the level of editing required. I pitch my fees in the middle of this range, and don’t differentiate between the types of editing. My time isn’t worth any less just because I’m doing a less complex level of editing.

Editors may quote for a project based on a per page rate (a standard editorial page is 250 words), a per 1,000 words rate, or by the hour. But at the end of the day, they all charge by the hour—even those who quote a single rate for a full manuscript.

Remember, while this standard hourly rate might sound high, freelance editors are self-employed. Freelance editors don’t get paid for eight hours a day, or 40 hours a week—they only get paid for chargeable hours, which means they aren’t paid for administration or marketing time. Editors don’t get paid vacation, paid sick leave, or benefits such as retirement savings contributions, or medical insurance. Editors have to pay for dictionaries, style guides, software, computers, and an internet connection.

Those expenses all come out of the hourly rate.

Actual actual hourly earnings may be half their hourly rate or less. Editing is mentally straining, which means many editors are only able to spend five hours a day editing without starting to miss errors.

So if an editor estimates your 80,000-word novel will take them 20 hours to copyedit, the quote will be somewhere between $600 and $1,200, depending on their standard hourly rate. A longer manuscript will cost more.

A manuscript that needs more work will cost more.

The best way to keep your editing costs down is to present your editor with a clean manuscript with no basic writing errors. This means:

  • Writing in scenes.
  • Showing, not telling.
  • Using point of view correctly.
  • Use interior monologue correctly.

If you’re not sure what these terms mean, you’re probably not ready for copyediting. Instead, begin with a manuscript assessment that will reinforce what you’re doing well, and show you how to correct what you’re not doing well.

Or leave a comment, and I’ll cover your question in a future blog post.

Time, place culture: Getting the setting right in your novel

Time, Place, Culture: Getting the Setting Right in Your Novel

This is another blog post based on a comment in a Facebook group (I seem to be getting into a habit, don’t I?). This was a conversation about editing.

One author commented that there are several changes she’d like to make to her debut novel, a historical romance published in 2017. Apparently, her research for her next novel has highlighted some inaccuracies in that first novel.

It should come as no surprise for you to know I’ve read the novel in question. It probably also won’t come as any great surprise to know that I found several inaccuracies in the setting.

The overall editing and proofreading in this novel was as good as I expect from a major Christian publisher.

The problem was with an element of editing that falls somewhere between developmental and line editing (both of which I addressed in a recent post).

Editing for Fact

Authors often make unintentional factual errors. I’ve found these fall into three main categories:

Time:

Using anachronisms, words which are too modern for the time setting of the novel.

Place:

Getting physical or geographical details wrong.

Culture:

Getting cultural details wrong e.g. a British character using an American English term in a time setting where s/he would have been unlikely to have known the American term (or vice versa).

Here are a few examples:

Danish (as a breakfast food):

Danish pastries were developed in Denmark in the 1850s. They spread to the United States during World War One, but it’s not clear when they were first introduced to England. My experience is that while the modern commuter might eat a Danish pastry for breakfast (or a pain au chocolate), breakfast at home in the 1880’s was more likely to be some form of cooked protein (bacon, eggs, kippers).

Entree (as part of a meal):

The entree is the main meal in modern USA, but the entree is the a small dish served before the main meal in England (and other Commonwealth countries). It took me a while to work out why the characters kept eating entrees, but never got to the main meal.

Marketing:

In Victorian England, marketing was the daily activity of going to the market to buy fresh produce to eat, not an activity undertaken by companies to sell products.

Schelp:

Schelp is an American English word derived from Middle High German via Yiddish. It dates from the early twentieth century, so an English woman in the 1880’s is unlikely to use the word.

Yard:

A unit of measure in British English, not a term used to refer to part of a property (the English have gardens, not yards).

These aren’t major mistakes.

None of them affected the believability of the plot (although I have read books where the factual errors did ruin the plot for me).

Also, using the correct English term (e.g. entree) may confuse American readers where the term has a different meaning in the USA. It is a balancing act.

But mistakes such as marketing and schlep brought me out of Victorian England and took me to twenty-first century America. And anything that draws the reader out of the story is a bad thing. We read to be drawn into the fictive dream, not thrown out of it.

This was brought home again by the story I was reading this evening, set in England in 1940. It’s a setting many of us know through such classics CS Lewis’s Narnia stories. So why did the English characters hide in a closet? We’ve all heard of The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe. So why did the American author feel the need to change “wardrobe” to “closet”?

How can authors stop this happening?

The best way to stop these kinds of errors is to be an expert in the time and place you are writing about. But that’s not always possible—we can’t all dedicate years to studying a specific period in history. And readers don’t want endless contemporary women’s fiction offerings about the challenge of balancing home, work, and family, and still trying to find room for hobbies and faith in the modern world.

Readers want variety.

Which means writers have to write more than what they know.

Which means research.

The research is rarely the problem. Authors research, and find out so many fabulous details that the challenge becomes what to leave out, not what to put in.

The real problem comes when the author adds information they haven’t researched. It’s an old problem: we don’t know what we don’t know. So we use a word that’s wrong for the time setting or location without realising it.

How do we avoid errors in our setting?

We need to find people who have knowledge of the areas we’re not personally familiar with:

  • Time
  • Place
  • Culture

With the novel that prompted this post, the answer would have been to find a beta reader or freelance editor who knows British English (perhaps someone who is English or has lived in England), and who knows something of the geography and history. I’ve read novels where the main character saw Oxford while traveling from London Heathrow to Bath. Nope. Not unless your driver is taking you for a ride, literally and figuratively.

Different novels will require beta readers or editors with different backgrounds and different knowledge. For example, an author writing about Native Americans or people of colour would benefit from finding an early reader with the appropriate racial or cultural background.

An author writing for a traditional publisher might think they don’t need to hire an editor or find beta readers with specialist knowledge. Won’t their publisher do that for them? First, obvious errors will affect your chances of gaining a publishing contract.

Even if you do get a contract, an increasing number of traditional publishers are outsourcing their editing. This means authors may or may not be assigned an editor with knowledge of the time, place, or culture of their novel. And many editors don’t undertake fact checking—research is the author’s job.

It’s your job as the author to get your facts right.

Authors, what steps do you take to prevent factual errors in your novels?

Can I Use Miracles in My Novel?

Dear Editor: Can I Use Miracles in My Novel?

I’m a Christian. I believe in miracles (although I understand not all Christians do, as I discussed in this post).

But that doesn’t mean that we can fill our fiction with miracles:

If you find yourself whipping up a coincidence or a miracle after the bleakest moment, chances are you’ve employed deus ex machina … some unexpected and improbable incident to bring victory or success. [This is] frowned upon in modern literature.

– Angela Hunt, The Plot Skeleton

In How Not to Write a Novel, Sandra Newman and Howard Mittlemark say a novelist’s job is harder than God’s: God can use miracles. We can’t. Even if they really happened.

Orson Scott Card puts it like this:

Believability in fiction doesn’t come from the facts—what actually happened. It comes from the readers’ sense of what is plausible—what is likely to happen … “But it really happened like that” is no defence in fiction.

– Orson Scott Card, Characters & Viewpoint, Chapter Three

But that isn’t to say we can’t use miracles. We can. But we need to establish up a world where miracles happen (which is related to genre). We need to set up our miracles with appropriate foreshadowing (but not telegraphing). And have to place our miracles at the right point in the story.

Miracles and Genre

I mentioned this draft blog post in my recent newsletter (if you don’t subscribe already, you can sign up on the right). One subscriber responded with a question: Does the presence of a miracle affect the genre labelling?

I believe it does. We’re more likely to expect miracles or supernatural events in genres such as fantasy or paranormal romance. But even in fantasy, the miracles or supernatural events must occur within the rules of the story. The author has to foreshadow or “plant” the possibility of a miracle or supernatural event.

We’re less likely to get miracles in romance, women’s fiction, mysteries, thrillers—or science fiction. As Arthur C Clarke says:

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

That’s not to say you can’t have a miracle in a women’s fiction novel—especially if that novel is aimed at the Christian market. But the miracle still needs to be planted, and to fall at the right place in the story.

However, I suspect this is coming at the question from the wrong angle. We shouldn’t be writing a book, then trying to work out the genre labelling. That means we’re not going to have a clear picture of our target reader or reader expectations as we (as happened with the novel I discussed a couple of weeks ago).

Instead, we should know our genre before we begin writing, so we can meet reader expectations, and foreshadow any miracles or coincidences.

Foreshadowing Miracles

Sol Stein talks about “planting” as a key to creating a credible series of actions:

Planting means preparing the ground for something that comes later, usually to make the later action credible. Planting is necessary when a later action might seem unconvincing to the reader.

– Sol Stein, Stein on Writing, Chapter 15

This is related to the principle of Chekov’s Gun (click here to read more). Essentially, it means that any miracles need to be appropriately foreshadowed. They can’t appear out of nowhere—especially not if they are climax-solving miracles.

Miracles and Structure

We can’t just put miracles anywhere in our story. The worst place is at the climax:

deus ex machina, the god in the machine, comes down for the rescue. These devices fool no one. They exist for the author’s convenience because he can’t figure out a credible way of rescuing the protagonist.

– Sol Stein, Stein on Writing, Chapter 15

Instead, use a miracle early in the story to get the plot in motion. Pixar (the film studio) put it like this:

Coincidences to get characters into trouble are great; coincidences to get them out of it are cheating.

Michael Kurland agrees, and also recommends limiting the number of coincidences in a story:

We’re all entitled to one whizz-bang coincidence that either starts our story or turns it into a new and unexpected direction … More than one “yeah, right” in the same story, and the reader will probably put the book down and use his or her precious time for something else.

WriterMag

An added bonus of using a miracle to get your character into trouble is that you could use a variation of that same miracle to get them out of trouble.

One Final Thought

Even as Christians, sometimes we ignore the minor miracles. We either don’t notice them, or we write them off as luck or coincidence.

I’ll give you an example. One book I’m editing on has a woman driving alone on a mountain road when her tyre bursts. Her car spins, and stops inches from the edge of the cliff, and she survives. She is then helped by a man who turns into a major character.

This didn’t strike me as a miracle, because something similar happened to me when I was at university. I was driving myself, my sister, and three friends to go skiing for the weekend. We left home at about four in the morning, and it was still dark as we approached the mountains. The others had fallen asleep when I hit black ice. The car skidded, turned, and we ended up on the verge at the side of the road. Another few feet, and we would have gone over. The others woke up, I counted us all lucky, and drove on.

Now I suspect (realise?) that was a miracle. I was a Christian at the time (although my parents weren’t), and I know one of the people in the car with me was from a Christian family. In hindsight, I’m sure his parents would have been praying for safe travels for us.

This kind of miracle doesn’t need a lot of setup, because I suspect anyone who has been driving for any period of time (especially in a country with mountains) will have a similar story. The accident that didn’t happen. The accident that should have killed them, but didn’t. Accidents happen (or don’t happen) all the time, to Christians and non-Christians, but even as Christians we rarely acknowledge that our narrow escapes are miracles.

To summarise:

Yes, you can have miracles (and coincidences, and plain old good luck) in your novel. But follow the rules:

  • Plant your miracles
  • Use your miracles in the middle
  • Use your miracles sparingly
  • Don’t use your miracle to solve the main plot problem

Do you use miracles in your fiction? How do you make them realistic?

Can My Characters Have Secrets?

Can My Characters Have Secrets? (An #AuthorToolBoxBlogHop post)

This post is part of the monthly Author ToolBox Blog Hop, organised by Raimey Gallant. We now have over 40 blogs participating. To find more Blog Hop posts:

Today I’m talking about secrets.

I was recently browsing through Facebook when an interesting question caught my eye. An author was asking if characters can keep secrets from the reader.

There are two parts to this question. The first is this: Can a character have a secret?

Yes. A character with a secret is a good character:

Any character with a credible, interesting secret has a good chance of coming alive.

– Sol Stein, Solutions for Novelists: Secrets of a Master Editor, Chapter Five

That is especially true if the character is one of the main characters, a point of view character. We want the character to have secrets. And we want to know those secrets, because that’s how we get to know the character:

Bonding with characters is achieved through intimacy … the greatest intimacy is achieved when we are privy to the thoughts and feelings of the characters. When we get to go inside their heads.

– James Scott Bell, Revision and Self-Editing for Publication, Chapter Two

But that leads us to the second part of the question: Can the point of view character hold secrets back from the reader?

Yes, but then you’re placing an artificial barrier between the reader and your character. If we were truly inside their heads, we’d know their secrets. Withholding secrets prevents intimacy. And point of view is all about intimacy.

Are you prepared to trade secrets for intimacy?

Let’s use some examples.

I’ve recently read the Criss Cross trilogy by CC Warrens. The three novels are all in first person, from the point of view of Holly, a tramatised twenty-eight-year-old photographer living as close to off the grid as anyone can live in modern New York. Holly has intimacy issues. So it works that Holly keeps secrets from those around her … and from the reader.

We find out more about Holly as the stories progress, as she begins to face her fears, make friends, and trust others with her secrets. That’s why she’s keeping secrets from the reader (and from her newfound friends). It’s a protection mechanism. She can’t cope with remembering how she’s been “hurt”.

Holly’s secrets drive the tension which drive the novels forward. And that’s what makes this a brilliant series.

But this is the exception.

What’s more common is that an untold secret robs the story of tension. For example, I once read a novel where a young woman moves from Ireland to the United States. She’s hiding from something or someone, but we don’t know who or what. All we know is that she has a secret which has sent her into hiding.

Hint: if you don’t want the evildoers to find you, don’t leave a paper trail wider than the Amazon. Between the passport, the airline tickets, the marriage licence, the gym membership, the library membership (all in her own name), there was never any doubt the evildoer would find her.

Anyway, the story goes on and on with references to this secret and how horrible it will be if the unknown evildoer finds her. Every mention of the unknown secret made it bigger and bigger, until I’m thinking this woman must have some ginormous secret. Maybe she’s the secret love child of two ultra-famous people. Maybe she’s got the US nuclear launch codes tattoed on her back. Maybe she’s the only person who knows who committed the crime of the century.

I didn’t know what her secret was, but it was obviously big and unique. Something that had never happened to anyone else in all of human history, or in any novel previously published.

But no. It turned out she’d fallen pregnant after being raped, and was forced to give up the baby. That actually made a lot of sense given her actions in the novel (e.g. joining the gym to get rid of the baby fat, and her fear of her marriage-of-convenience husband). But it was a complete letdown as a plot point, because it felt anticlimactic. Unfortunately, women being raped, falling pregnant, and not keeping their babies is all too common, both in real life and in fiction.

I’m convinced it would have been a stronger story if we’d known her secret from page one. Then we could have empathised with her situation, cheered as she achieved small victories on the road to normal. And there still would have been plenty of tension: would she allow herself to recover? Could she learn to trust men again? Could she fall in love with her marriage-of-convenience husband? Would she tell him her secret?

Keeping the secret turned the climax into an anticlimax.

Readers allow the narrator to withhold the ending, as long as he tells us at each stage in the story all that the character knew at that point in time … [not] hold back information until the end of the story … The author who does this usually thinks she’s increasing the suspense. In fact, she’s weakening the suspense by decreasing the readers’ involvement with and trust in the narrator.

– Orson Scott Card, Characters & Viewpoint, Chapter 16

Sharing the secret with the reader is a great way to enhance the conflict and add to the tension.

The other characters don’t need to know the point of view character’s secrets. But the reader does.

A good recent example of this is Shadows of Hope by Georgiana Daniels. The main character, Marissa, is infertile but works in a pregnancy crisis centre. One of her clients is pregnant to Marissa’s husband—except only the reader knows this (well, Kaitlyn obviously knows she’s pregnant to Colin, but Kaitlyn doesn’t even know Colin is married, let alone who he is married to).

Marissa, Kaitlyn, and Colin are all point of view characters. We know what they know, and we also know the secrets they don’t know. This tension keeps the story moving forward as we wait for the inevitable dust-up when everyone discovers what we already know. The story would have no power or tension if it was told entirely from Marissa’s point of view (or Kaitlyn’s, or Colin’s).

The secrets drove the story.

And the result was I could feel and empathise with both Marissa and Kaitlyn. (Colin? Not so much.) Marissa knew her marriage was in trouble, but infertility isn’t an easy problem with a quick fix like, say, a root canal. Kaitlyn believed Colin loved her, and that he’d man up and marry her as soon as he found out she was pregnant. As a reader, I knew that wasn’t going to happen, because I knew about Marissa. But Kaitlyn didn’t know, and that enhanced the suspense.

So can a character keep secrets from the reader?

Yes.

But keeping secrets comes at a price—intimacy, empathy, tension, and conflict.

Is having your character keep their secret worth the price?

Why You Need to Hire the Right Editor

Case Study: Why You Need to Hire the Right Editor

I recently saw a comment in one of the Facebook groups I’m a member of. A fiction author was asking about editing standards in relation to her recently released first novel.

As it happened, I was in the middle of reading her book when I saw the Facebook comment. I’d bought it after she mentioned it in her regular email (yes, email newsletters do sell books). I hadn’t read much before I realised it was a typical self-published novel, in that the author had rushed to market, and skipped several levels of editing (I discussed the levels of editing in last week’s post).

She’s not a bad writer. In fact, she’s a very good writer. She’s been writing non-fiction for a long time. She has non-fiction books published, as well as hundreds of blog posts and newsletters. As a result, her writing is succinct and understandable, with no major grammar or punctuation glitches. That’s more than I can say for many first-time self-published authors.

I understand the author has a MFA in (I think) creative writing. That shows. Her plot and structure are solid. There are goals. There is conflict. There are strong characters, with plenty of faults. This definitely isn’t the work of someone who decides to write and publish a novel on a whim, to tick an item off their bucket list.

But my experience of MFA and similar programmes (my limited experience, mostly based on the blog posts and books I’ve read by people who say they are MFA graduates) is that they focus on literary fiction. But this author is writing genre fiction. It’s different. Just as fiction is different from non-fiction.

Based on what the novel, it’s obvious that neither the author nor her editor are regular readers of fiction in general, or the specific genre she’s writing.

In other words, the author didn’t hire the right editor for this project. Why do I say that?

Most fiction is edited to the standards set in the Chicago Manual of Style (the style manual I’m most familiar with). The other major style guide is AP (Associated Press), which is the accepted manual for journalism and a lot of non-fiction. I suspect this author (and/or her editor) has used AP.

The grammar and style in this novel is correct for non-fiction, but not consistent with what I usually see in fiction.

For example, fiction rarely uses parentheses. I’d say “never”, but I can remember one of the last thousand books I read used parentheses (no, I can’t remember which one). As you can see, I use parentheses all the time in blog posts and non-fiction. But novels do not use parentheses.

There were also a lot of colons and semi-colons in the novel. They were all used correctly. But I can’t remember ever seeing a colon in a traditionally published novel, and I only rarely see semi-colons. That’s a small example, but it shows neither this author nor her editor truly understand fiction.

Those were the two potential issues I noticed first.

I wasn’t looking for errors—even though I’m a freelance editor, I try to ignore editing issues when I’m reading for pleasure (or reading a review copy).

But then I read the Facebook post about the novel having errors, and I started noticing more errors (no, I didn’t keep count). I found sentences with missing words (which a copyeditor or proofreader should have picked up).

I found sentences which weren’t bad, but which could be stronger.

A line editor or copyeditor would have commented on those sentences. A developmental editor would have let the weak writing pass, on the assumption those sentences would be worked over later by the line editor. A proofreader would have let the weak writing pass because proofreading is about checking the final copy for correctness, not for making changes to the text.

There are also developmental issues that need to be addressed.

The biggest was genre. As I said, I bought the book based on a promotion in her non-fiction newsletter. The newsletter advertised the novel as clean romance. “Clean romance” means a general market romance novel with no overt sexual content—similar to the Harlequin Mills & Boon Sweet Romance category romance novels. There is no sex, but there are also no overt Christian or other faith-based elements.

Yet this novel has clear Christian elements to it , in that the hero has recently become a Christian and is determined to turn his life around. That’s great … in a Christian romance. It’s going to annoy readers looking for clean romance (many of whom are looking in the clean romance category specifically because they don’t want a faith-based plot).

So it was Christian romance rather than clean romance.

But it didn’t entirely read like a romance. The beginning read like women’s fiction with romantic elements, in that the first few chapters were just the heroine. A romance would typically introduce the hero early in the book. Then we got introduced to the boy next door, the heroine’s childhood sweetheart. I figured he was the hero … but he wasn’t. The hero was the other guy (the new Christian).

This isn’t good. Romance readers want to know which characters to like and to follow. Introducing the Other Man before the Hero confused the issue, and meant I wasn’t sure which guy to like and which guy to loathe.

Overall, it wasn’t a bad book. But it could have been better.

This book illustrates why it’s important to hire editors who don’t just understand the mechanics of grammar and punctuation, but also understand the genre you’re writing, and the reader expectations of that genre.

I suspect this author used the same editor she uses for her non-fiction books. But her novel illustrates the importance of not just hiring a solid editor, but hiring the right editor for this book.

The right editor isn’t just an editor. The right editor is a teacher and a coach, someone who will gently point out the mistakes and improve the novel on a macro level, not just make it right at the micro level. The right editor for this project needs to understand more than the rules of punctuation and grammar. The right editor needs to understand fiction in general, and the specific genre.

The right editor understands the genre of this book.

Which might mean hiring different editors for different books.

What do you think? Do you write in more than one genre? Do you hire different editors for different books?

 

Dear Editor | Did My Editor Do Their Job Properly?

Dear Editor | Did My Editor Do Their Job Properly?

I recently saw a comment in one of the Facebook groups I’m a member of. A fiction author was asking about editing standards, in relation to her recently released first novel. She said her editor picked up 50 to 60 mistakes in her 55,000-word novel, but the author had since found at least twelve errors the editor didn’t pick up, including mistakes like missing words.

That concerns me.

I’m not concerned that the editor apparently missed twelve mistakes. Twelve mistakes in a 55,000-word novel means the novel is 99.98% error-free.

I’d be happy with that.

I’m concerned because I don’t think the author understood the editing process enough to know that an editor who picks up less than 60 errors in a 55,000-word novel might not be an editor—at least, not in the way this author was thinking of editing. I’d expect to pick up this number of mistakes in a manuscript assessment. It’s possible this editor thought she was the developmental editor, not the copyeditor. If so, grammatical errors and missing words weren’t her job.

It’s possible the editor was claiming to be a copyeditor. If so, the author should have known from the low number of mistakes that the editor hadn’t done a thorough job.

(Although she should have been able to tell this from the sample edit. Always get a sample edit, even if you have to pay for it. If you’d like to request a free sample edit from me, contact me via the contact form on my About page.)

For example, I’ve recently completed a copyedit of a 40,000-word manuscript where I had over 2,300 queries or suggested changes. Most were small changes—remove a space here, add a comma there. Sometimes it takes two changes to correct one mistake.

My later proofread of the same manuscript had 300 suggestions, many of which related to the changes I’d suggested in the copyedit, but some where things I’d missed the first time around (often because I was focussing on another problem in that sentence or paragraph).

And that was a light edit—this is the author’s tenth published book, and her first six were with a major traditional publisher. She knows how to write. She’s been edited before. She expects this level of editing.

Dear author, if you only hired one editor, and she found less than 60 mistakes, then she missed things. A lot of things.

Let’s Talk About Editing

There are several different types of editing. A book from a traditional publisher will go through at least three rounds of editing, and several rounds of proofreading. Different editors use different terms, but here are the basic levels of editing:

Structural Editing

A high-level analysis of the plot, structure, characters, genre, and theme. The feedback is delivered in the form of an editorial letter, highlighting strengths and pinpointing areas the author needs to work on. Some authors use alpha readers or beta readers or critique partners for structural editing: you edit mine, and I’ll edit yours. The main point is that the editor (or critique partner) can go through the whole manuscript in one or two sittings, to get the big picture.

Developmental Editing

The editor works through the manuscript using Track Changes, commenting on big-picture issues like plot, characterisation, point of view, and showing vs. telling. This delivers similar feedback to the Structural Edit, except the author can see exactly where the problem is. The Structural Edit might say there is a problem with point of view. The Developmental Edit highlights each and every time there is a point of view violation. Some authors will use a critique group for this level of editing, swapping one or two chapters on a regular (e.g. weekly) basis.

Line Editing

Once the overall plot and characters work, the line editor gets to work. The Line Edit again uses Track Changes, and focuses on how the writing can be improved to deliver more emotion, more power. This includes things like cutting cliches, repetition, and telling, and reworking sentences and paragraphs to show the story the best way possible.

Copyediting

This is what most people think of as “editing”. It’s going through the manuscript (again using Track Changes) to focus on the spelling, grammar, and punctuation. It may also pick up or correct issues that either weren’t picked up during line editing, or have been introduced during revision. Some authors call this stage “proofreading” and work with a small group of nitpicky beta readers.

Proofreading

We finally get to proofreading. By this point, the novel should have been through several different paid and unpaid editors, beta readers, and/or critique partners. But there are always gremlins who sneak in, and that’s the proofreader’s job: to find and eliminate those last remaining gremlins. Ideally, the proofreader hasn’t read the book before, which means they have fresh eyes and will read the words on the page, not the words they remember being on the page last time.

Remember …

A good editor won’t just edit. They’ll tell why they are suggesting each change, and cite rules where applicable (e.g. . A good editor is a teacher and a coach as well as an editor. This is especially true for structural, developmental, and line editors. If you’re not getting that feedback, maybe it’s time to consider a different approach.

So did your editor do her job properly? I suspect not. But I can’t say for certain, because I don’t know what type of editing you hired her for. And that’s on the author.

Do you need to reconfirm your email list for GDPR?

Do You Need to Reconfirm Your Email List for GDPR?

If you’re anything like me, the last few weeks have been full of emails from authors and service providers asking if I want to stay on their email list. I’ve reconfirmed some, deleted some, and ignored most (and now I’m waiting to see if my passive rejection will be seen as rejection or as confirmation).

GDPR, the legislation designed to prevent spam emails, has led to a deluge of spam emails.

One of the big questions authors have had about the introduction of GDPR is whether they need to obtain consent from the people who have previously signed up to their email list. It doesn’t help that the lawyers can’t agree on who does and who doesn’t need to send reconfirmation emails.

GDPR Applies to EU Residents

Note that GDPR only applies to EU residents. If you don’t have a website or an email list, GDPR probably doesn’t affect you. If you’re confident you don’t have any EU residents on your email list (because it’s only 17 people and you know all of them in real life, or because your email service provider can tell where people are from based on their IP address or other data), then GDPR isn’t likely to affect you.

But you still need to work through the process of deciding who is on your email list, and whether you have a lawful basis of processing data of EU residents.

Lawful Basis of Processing Data

There are six different ways we can legally process data under GDPR:

  1. Consent: the individual has consented to be on your email list. This is the most common reason, and has a high standard to prove.
  2. Contract: you have a contract with the individual and need to process their personal data to deliver that contract.
  3. Legal obligation: where you need to process personal data to comply with statute (e.g. you need to keep accurate financial records to satisfy the tax department).
  4. Vital interests: where you need to collect personal data to save someone’s life. Yeah, I don’t think this is going to include any author email lists.
  5. Public task: where you need the data to carry out a task or function set out in law. Another one that’s not going to apply to author email lists.
  6. Legitimate interests: where it is somehow in the individual’s best interest that you process their data. This is broad and flexible, and will cover some marketing activities (e.g. some lawyers argue uploading your email list to Facebook to target advertising towards your subscribers or similar groups would be covered by legitimate interest).

Most author newsletters are going to claim consent as their lawful basis for processing data. Many authors have been sending emails to reconfirm consent, but there is a school of legal thought that considers reconfirming where you can’t already prove consent is sending unsolicited email, and contrary to GDPR and other anti-spam laws.

I have several email lists, and can think of four main ways people signed up:

  1. In person (e.g. at a conference)
  2. Direct website signup
  3. Signed up to an email course
  4. By participating in an online giveaway

The following is my interpretation of how each of those needs to be treated for GDPR, both in terms of past sign-ups, and going forward. If you don’t know what GDPR is, check out my previous posts:

All the usual legal disclaimers apply. I’m not a lawyer, and this is not legal advice. This is my interpretation of what I need to do (or not do) for GDPR. My circumstances are different to yours, so my answers may not be right for you.

1. In Person Sign-Ups

When I speak at a conference, I invite people to sign up for my email list. In-person signups are fine as long as individuals signed themselves (i.e. they weren’t signed up by a friend), and as long as I keep a paper or scanned copy of the signup form as proof. In this case, I’m relying on consent as my legal basis for processing data.

Going forward, we can continue to take in-person signup, but have a copy of your privacy policy available as well, and ensure we keep the paper or scanned copy of the signup (as your email service provider will see it as someone you have manually added to the list).

I don’t consider I need to send reconfirmation emails for this group, as I have their signed consent (besides, I’m confident there are no EU residents in this group!).

2. Direct Website Signup

People can sign up to my email list directly from my website through forms on each page and each blog post. Signups directly through a website may need to be reconfirmed for GDPR if the original sign up was not GDPR compliant (e.g. signing anyone who commented on your site up to your email newsletter). Double opt in doesn’t prove compliance, but single opt in probably isn’t compliant (as someone could be signed up without their knowledge).

The website also needs to have make clear what people were signing up to e.g. a newsletter that will include news about your books (i.e. marketing information). Your email service provider should have a record of how and when everyone signed up.

I don’t consider I need to send reconfirmation emails for this group, as they were each required to positively opt in (and complete a double opt-in) which made clear they were signing up for an email newsletter, and told them they can unsubscribe at any time. In other words, following best practice email marketing principles.

3. Email Course Signup

I have a paid email course, the Kick-Start Your Author Platform Marketing Challenge. I can’t reasonably deliver an email course without holding the email addresses of the participants. This is covered by contract as a lawful basis to process data under GDPR.

4. Giveaway Signup

Online giveaways are where signups get tricky. There are several different ways of running or participating in an online giveaway.

Also, GDPR requires that individuals can refuse consent without detriment i.e. you can’t promise someone a free gift but only give it to those who sign up for your email list. It could be argued that forcing someone to sign up for an email list isn’t GDPR compliant.

I have participated in several types of giveaways:

  1. Self-Hosted (via KingSumo)
  2. Individual Sign Up (via Instafreebie)
  3. Group Sign Up (via Spirit-Filled Kindle)

Self-Hosted via KingSumo

I have used KingSumo for several giveaways. KingSumo uses a double opt in, and adds people directly to my email list. I can therefore show consent if required.

KingSumo allows the giveaway winner to be chosen from:

  • Everyone who provided their email address, or
  • Only from those who completed the double opt in (i.e. consented to sign up for my email list).

Going forward, I will continue to use KingSumo giveaways, as but will ensure there is no detriment to those who don’t complete the double opt in (i.e. they still go in the draw for a prize). I will also ensure I continue to keep a record of the terms and conditions of each individual giveaway, and add a link to my privacy policy.

I don’t consider I need to send reconfirmation emails to this group, as I clearly stated that by completing the double opt in, participants were consenting to receive my email newsletter. While KingSumo does track who enters, only those who completed the double opt in were added to my email list, and they have had the opportunity to unsubscribe.

(Click here to read my blog post introducing KingSumo and two other online giveaway tools.)

Individual Sign Up (via Instafreebie)

There are a range of paid giveaways hosted by an external provider such as Instafreebie or Ryan Zee/Booksweeps.

These giveaways give entrants the option to sign up to all the email lists, none of them, or to pick specific lists. I participated in an Instafreebie giveaway, and around 20% of those participating chose to sign up to my email list to receive a copy of Christian Publishing: A List of Publishers Specializing in Christian Fiction.

Each new subscriber went through a welcome sequence, and about 10% unsubscribed as part of that sequence. I’ve since sent a re-engagement email and bulk unsubscribed everyone who hasn’t opened any of my emails for the last six months, on the rationale that those who have opened my emails have had the option to unsubscribe directly.

I’m of the view that where an individual signed up for a giveaway but had the option of signing up to several email lists including mine, then an individual who has signed up to my email list has consented to be on that list.

If there wasn’t a double opt in, or if individual was required to subscribe in order to receive the gift, or if they weren’t given the option to unsubscribe (e.g. because the giveaway was last month and you haven’t yet emailed them), then it may be necessary to send a reconfirmation email (as if it was double opt in).

I won’t be sending a reconfirmation email to my segment of Instafreebie subscribers, as I have already sent an engagement email and bulk unsubscribed non-openers.

Note that Instafreebie (and similar programmes such as BookFunnel) have changed their systems so individuals can receive the free book without signing up to author’s newsletter, as making the gift dependent on a subscription is against the spirit of GDPR (i.e. the idea of no detriment).

Group Sign Up (via Spirit-Filled Kindle)

Another form of group giveaway is where all entrants are added to a master email list which is forwarded to all participating authors. These giveaways are often run through software such as Gleam or KingSumo. These tools don’t allow entrants to sign up to individual email lists.

I participated in a giveaway with Spirit Filled Kindle which used this approach. All entrants went through a double opt in. This make it clear they would be added to the email lists of all participating authors.

I emailed this group three times, then deleted anyone who didn’t opened at least one of those emails. Anyone who opened one or more emails had the opportunity to unsubscribe, so I kept them on my email list without sending a formal reconfirmation request. As always, they have the option to unsubscribe at any time.

Spirit Filled Kindle have now changed their approach. My understanding is that entrants will be emailed the individual email list links. This means they can choose which lists to sign up to.

What’s Your Approach?

However, my answer shouldn’t necessarily be your answer. Your answer will depend on:

  • How you collected the email addresses (and was that consistent with GDPR).
  • When you collected the email addresses.
  • How many times you’ve contacted your subscribers.
  • When you last contacted your subscribers.
  • Whether you make it easy for subscribers to unsubscribe or update their details.
  • Whether you have “cleaned” your list to remove those who don’t open your emails.

At the very least, take the introduction of GDPR as an opportunity to re-engage with those who haven’t opened your emails for a while, and deleting those who haven’t. It will improve your open rates, which helps make future emails more deliverable.

I hope the information and options I’ve provided help those of you who are still puzzling over your email list.

 

A (not so) Short History of Fake Reviews on Amazon

A (not so) Short History of Fake Reviews on Amazon

When I first started blogging, back in September 2011, there were almost no restrictions to reviewing on Amazon. Someone could create a buyer account on Amazon, buy something, and 24 hours later they could review any product on any Amazon site.

Yes, any product. On any site. Amazon has never placed any restriction on who can review what. You don’t have to have purchased the product on Amazon to review that product—which is good news for book bloggers. Bloggers often receive free copies from authors or publishers, from book tour companies, from reviewing sites such as NetGalley, or from sources such as the library.

Amazon allow customers to review whether or not they have experienced the product (i.e. read the book). However, Amazon also recognise that potential customers place more trust in reviews where the reviewer has experienced the product. Amazon acknowledged this by introducing the Amazon Verified Purchase badge, and AVP reviews are now shown ahead of non-AVP reviews.

But as Amazon gained a reputation as the powerhouse of online shopping, sellers attempted to game the reviewing system by posting fake reviews. Amazon responded by tightening and clarifying the reviewing guidelines—an ongoing process.

In this post, I’m going to highlight some of the background to these changes.

Spoiler: Amazon isn’t out to get honest authors. Only the dishonest ones.

Friends and Family Reviews

Amazon’s fake review problem first came to my attention several years ago. Savvy reviewers noticed an oddity: a self-published book from an unknown author had somehow managed to garner over 350 five-star reviews. It also had a handful of one-star reviews. The five-star reviews were all from new accounts that had only reviewed this one book. The reviews were all short, and expressed similar sentiments: the book was amazing. A must-read thriller.

The one-star reviews told a different story: this was a novel in dire need of editing. They questioned the authenticity of the five-star reviews.

Amazon investigated, and the five-star reviews disappeared.

Amazon tightened their reviewing guidelines to prohibit “promotional” reviews (including reviews from friends and family). A lot of authors have lost reviews in this way, as Amazon has (rightly or wrongly) tied them to a reviewer through common IP addresses or gifted books. There is a concern that Amazon may monitor social media relationships e.g. Facebook friends, although this is merely supposition. Amazon says they do not monitor social media.

The investigation was expanded across the store, and Amazon deleted many reviews. They also introduced a new requirement to the US Amazon Reviewing Guidelines, and clarified their definition of promotional content.

Customers now had to make a minimum purchase of $5 before they could review. But this didn’t stop the fake reviews.

As well as deleting reviews, Amazon began prohibiting reviewers from posting reviews if they believed there was a relationship between the reviewer and the seller. For example, in mid-2017, Amazon Australia refused to allow one of my reviews to post because they had determined I knew the (Australian) author. I did, although I don’t believe that affected my review and I had disclosed I’d received a free book from the author. Ironically, Amazon US posted my review of the same title with no question.

Buying Reviews

Now deceitful sellers looking for fake reviews had to become world-class hackers in order to deceive the hacker hunters at Amazon. Fortunately (or unfortunately), there was an almost endless supply of ethically challenged “reviewers” who would post a fake review in exchange for a buck or five … which was against Amazon’s guidelines. Websites with convenient names like “Buy Amazon Reviews” sprang up to connect the two groups.

Creative sellers could write their own reviews for the company to post on “genuine” accounts, and for a small premium some reviewers would offer to buy the ebook so the review would carry the AVP tag. I guess they forgot that Amazon can and do track our Kindle reading habits, so it wouldn’t have been difficult for them to tell that the writers of these glowing five-star AVP reviews hadn’t even opened the ebook in question.

Amazon soon caught on, and filed suit against the websites in question.

This was followed by additional lawsuits against Fiverr reviewers offering a similar “service”.

Coupon Clubs

Then came the coupon clubs. Sellers would offer product discount coupons to Amazon Prime members, offering them products at a 99% or 100% discounts. Facebook groups sprang up, connecting people who were happy to receive free products through Amazon (with the shipping paid by Amazon through Prime) in exchange for a five-star review. This left Amazon paying to ship hundreds of dollars of free product to customers who didn’t spend any money at Amazon except for their Prime membership.

Amazon started deleting reviews, and reviewers appeared in the Amazon Discussion Forums.They complained their reviews had disappeared, and that was awful because now they weren’t going to get any more free products (it was apparently a condition of membership to the coupon clubs that reviewers had to post a five-star review within a narrow timeframe to get more products, despite this being against Amazon’s Reviewing Guidelines).

Other reviewers investigated, and called out the coupon club reviewers for their bad behaviour—for knowingly or unknowingly breaking Amazon’s Reviewing Guidelines by posting multiple reviews for products without adequately testing those products. The discussions are gone now, but the ones I remember reading showed wilful ignorance from the coupon club reviewers. They refused to believe what they were doing was in any way misleading or unethical, or that it contravened Amazon’s guidelines.

Amazon Increases the Purchase Requirement

Amazon responded by introducing a $50 purchase requirement.

In order to review products on Amazon, a potential reviewer had to have spent $50 on the site, excluding any Amazon Prime membership.

Initially, the increased purchase requirement only applied at Amazon US. In late 2017, I noticed Amazon had introduced a $50 purchase requirement in in Australia and Canada, and a GBP 40 purchase requirement in the UK. But it appeared that if you were eligible to review on Amazon US (as I am), you were eligible to review on any other Amazon site. The reverse may also have been true.

I have personally purchased dead tree books from Amazon US and UK, and ebooks from Amazon US and Australia (one of the quirks of living in New Zealand is that I must purchase physical products from the US store, but can choose to purchase Kindle books from the US or Australia).

I’ve been actively reviewing since 2011, and have always posted my reviews on Amazon US and UK. When Amazon introduced the Australian store, I started adding my reviews there as well. Anyway, despite the increase in the purchase requirement, I was still able to post reviews at all three Amazon sites. I then tried posting a review at Amazon Canada, a store where I have never spent as much as a cent. My review was accepted. This showed me the $50 purchase requirement was at a single store.

This has now changed:

  • The purchase requirement is now per year, not a once-for-all-time.
  • The purchases must be made at the store in question.

The requirements differ by geography:

  • Amazon US says reviewers must have spent $50 in the last year at Amazon.com.
  • Amazon Canada says reviewers must have spent $50 at Amazon.ca within the last twelve months.
  • Amazon UK says reviewers must have spent GBP 40 at Amazon.co.uk within the last twelve months.
  • Amazon Australia says reviewers have spent $50 at Amazon.com.au, but there is no timeframe mentioned. Yet.

I tested this. My results:

  • I was unable to post a review at Amazon Canada (no purchases ever).
  • I was unable to post a review at Amazon Australia (lifetime purchases: <$20). I am still in the Top 100 Reviewers at Amazon Australia.
  • I was able to post at Amazon UK (no purchases in the last ten years).
  • I was able to post at Amazon US (purchases: >$50 in the last year).

I suspect Amazon UK will catch up with me soon, and veto further reviews. However, the UK site displays the top three or top five reviews from Amazon.com, so some of my reviews will continue to show on the UK site, even though they were posted at the US site.

I don’t know what is behind this latest change. It could be that sites like Buy Amazon Reviews sprang up offshore to sell fake reviews from non-US reviewers who had spent the equivalent of $50 in their home store. Non-US sites are harder for Amazon to track and sue. The easy solution is to only allow US customers to review in the US store.

Update: Amazon Limits non-AVP Reviews

The latest news is that Amazon is limiting the number of non-Amazon Verified Purchase reviews on books. This may extend to other products. There is a view that Amazon Verified Reviews are somehow more reliable than non-AVP reviews. The default is to show AVP reviews, and many Amazon users won’t even know they can adjust their filter to show all reviews. From Amazon’s perspective, it makes sense to attempt to control the ratio of AVP to non-AVP reviews if:

  • They believe their customers place more trust in AVP reviews, or
  • They suspect some non-AVP reviews are flouting their Reviewing Guidelines and are actually Promotional Content.

Amazon also say:

We may restrict the ability to submit a review when we detect unusual reviewing behavior, or to maintain the best possible shopping experience.

My feeling is this may be a result of two separate issues:

  • The growing number of authors with significant and active street teams, all trying to post reviews on or close to release day. If this is the case, I’d suggest authors ask their street teams to stagger their reviews (e.g. by batching the email reminders so different people receive the reminder on different days).
  • Coupon clubs and other ethically challenged sellers are still giving away free products in exchange for reviews (probably five-star reviews).

Either way, we can only hope it will eliminate some of the fake reviews (and sellers) without hurting genuine reviewers (and authors).

Conclusion

I know authors find it hard to get reviews. I know authors find it frustrating when they lose reviews, or when reviewers can’t post for whatever reason. Often, it’s the honest sellers, honest authors, and honest reviewers who miss out.

But I also know Amazon customers need to be able to trust the Amazon review system

Amazon want that as well. Without trustworthy reviews, Amazon is just another online retailer.

Years of observation has shown me that every rule Amazon have introduced, every review they have deleted, has been an attempt (successful or otherwise) to protect their review system.

Amazon could get harsher. They could only allow people to have purchased a product from Amazon to review that product on Amazon. Many other retailers do. They could correlate our Kindle pages read with the books we are permitted to review. After all, they already collect that information.

We don’t want that. So we need to be ethical customers, sellers, and reviewers. And we need to encourage others to be the same. Anything else hurts us all.

This post is the background to a series I’m planning for later in the year. What questions do you have about reviews that you’d like me to address? Let me know in the comments.

Update Your Website for GDPR

Updating Your Website for GDPR (an #AuthorToolBoxBlogHop Post)

This post is part of the monthly Author ToolBox Blog Hop, organised by Raimey Gallant. We now have over 40 blogs participating. To find more Blog Hop posts:

Click here to visit the main Blog Hop page
Click here to find our posts on Twitter
Click here to find our Pinterest board

GDPR and Your Website

My April #AuthorToolBoxBlogHop post introduced GDPR. Here are the main highlights:

  • The GDPR is the General Data Protection Regulation, and comes into force on 25 May 2018.
  • If you process or hold the personal data of EU residents, it applies to you no matter where you are based.

In other words, GDPR applies to me even though I’m not based in the EU. It probably applies to you as well.

Since writing that post, I’ve read thousands of words of blog posts and watched or listened to hours of YouTube videos and podcasts to try and understand what we have to do by 25 May to comply with GDPR.

First, the PSA. I’m not a lawyer, so none of the information in this blog post is legal advice. It’s my best guess as a layperson who has studied the subject. If you want legal advice, you ask a lawyer who is qualified to practice in this area. In this case, that means a lawyer based in the EU with a background in privacy, data protection, or similar. You don’t get legal advice off the internet.

The first thing to remember is that the world is not ending. As British lawyer Suzanne Dibble says:

“The GDPR mandates organizations to put into place comprehensive but proportionate governance measures.”

“Proportionate” is important. It means that you and I, as a one-person organisations, aren’t going to be expected to have all the data protection bells and whistles of, say, British Airways. But we still have to be responsible about the way we collect and process personal data, and we’re still accountable for that.

It’s the Golden Rule in practice.

We need to treat the personal information we hold in the same way we’d want them to treat our data.

Note that personal information is defined as any information relating to an identified or identifiable natural person. This includes name, email address, and can also include an IP address, and website cookies. At the most basic level, GDPR is about respecting the privacy of individuals. I’m sure we can all agree with that.

The other thing to remember is that the ICO isn’t going to be actively monitoring our GDPR compliance. Organisations will be investigated only if a complaint is made against them.

What Do I Need to Do?

There are actually a few things you can or should do if you have a website. Here are eight points I think are the most important:

1. SSL Certificate

If your website doesn’t already have an SSL certificate, it may be worth getting one for the added layer of security and the Google benefits. If you haven’t yet set up your website, I would definitely recommend using SSL from the beginning.

Many web hosts (e.g. BlueHost) provide a free SSL certificate with their hosting packages. Alternatively, NameCheap offers SSL certificates starting at $9/year (see this blog post from Nuts and Bolts for more information).

Neil Patel at Kissmetrics has a detailed post on the subject.

2. Update Your Privacy Policy

If you don’t already have a Privacy Policy, now is a good time to develop one. You already need one under Californian law (CalOPPA), if you use Google Analytics, or if you’re an Amazon affiliate.

There are plenty of free and paid resources online to help you. I’ve checked out several options:

Auto Terms of Service and Privacy Policy WordPress Plugin

Auto Terms of Service and Privacy Policy is a free WordPress plugin. I added this to my author website, and found it had no customisation, no reference to GDPR, and fails the plain English test. I’ll be replacing this ASAP.

Free Privacy Policy

Free Privacy Policy is customisable and produces a solid policy, but has no reference to GDPR. On the plus side, free meant free, and the form was easy to fill out. But it won’t be valid after 25 May.

DGD Deutsche Gesellschaft für Datenschutz

The only free GDPR-compliant policy I found was from a German website (click here). The policy is customisable, and available in your choice of English or German. However, the stilted English suggests the policy has been written in German and translated. I’d rather have a policy that was written in English.

Terms Feed

Terms Feed offer a “free” Privacy Policy, but you have to pay for certain necessary customisation, like the GDPR verbiage. My quote was $61, so I didn’t download it.

Privacy Policies

Privacy Policies charge $29.99 for a commercial policy (with “commercial” including anyone who is using affiliate links, or marketing or selling any product or service). The policy is customised, but I didn’t buy it so I don’t know how good it is or whether it covers GDPR.

iubenda.com

Randy Ingermanson of Advanced Fiction Writing recommends iubenda.com. The free policy covers next to nothing, so most authors will need the paid version, which is $27 per year. The policy is customisable, but I found there were too many options to choose from, and it didn’t include some of the plugins I use. I didn’t get a policy, but you can see Randy’s here: Privacy Policy. Note that it’s stores at the iubenda website, not on Randy’s own site. I prefer something that’s stored on my own site, so I know it isn’t updated without my knowledge.

Zegal.com

Another good option is Zegal.com, which offers free privacy policies tailored for New Zealand or Australia. Mine was clear, easy to read, and easy to understand, but it’s not GDPR-compliant (although there is a paid version which is).

I’ve used the Zegal policy as the basis for my updated Privacy Policy, and added extra sections as advised by WordPress.

Suzanne Dibble

Suzanne Dibble, a British lawyer and expert in the subject, has put together a full GDPR pack. It’s not cheap (GBP 197) but covers everything. To see what’s in the pack, check out this blog post from Shannon Mattern: How to Get Your Website Ready for GDPR.

Suzanne also has a free Facebook group and lots of videos. This is the most important (and the longest):

 

Don’t copy someone else’s Privacy Policy without permission, or you will be infringing on the copyright of the lawyer who wrote that policy. As writers who want our copyright to be respected, we need to respect the copyright of others.

Even if someone has given permission to copy their policy, read it carefully and revise if necessary. It might not include the information you need, either because they use things you don’t, or because you use things the policy doesn’t refer to. And it might use the wrong language for your brand. For example, this NSFW policy from Writers HQ contains all the necessary legal information, but the language is all wrong for my audience. And probably yours.

3. Terms and Conditions

If you are selling directly from your website, you should consider a terms and conditions policy. I’m currently using the extreme legalese of Auto Terms of Service and Privacy Policy, but I will look at this again.

4. Cookie Policy

Most websites use cookies, and EU law requires website owners to advise visitors of this fact, and obtain their consent to using cookies. WordPress plugins such as the EU Cookie Law Widget help site owners comply.

Click here to learn more about cookies. Cookies can be addressed as part of your Privacy Policy, or in a separate Cookie Policy.

If you use WordPress, check out the GDPR Cookie Compliance plugin.

5. Update Your Email Signup Forms

Once you have created (or updated) your Privacy Policy, you will need to update your email signup forms to include a reference or link to your Privacy Policy.

Your signup form must also make clear that they are signing up for your email newsletter, and that they will receive marketing information. You can also give them a free book or other gift for signing up, as I do. But it has to be in that order:

Sign up for my monthly newsletter and receive a free gift.

Is probably acceptable (probably. Not definitely). This is not:

Want a free gift? Sign up here.

Why is that second example not acceptable? Because it doesn’t make it clear that the user is being signed up to an email list. What about this?

Want a free gift? Sign up here, and I’ll add you to my email list.

This isn’t acceptable under GDPR because it ties the free gift to signing up to the newsletter. Yes, this looks the same as my first example. Semantics. Even the lawyers I’ve listened to don’t agree on this one.

6. Update Your Contact Form

Most websites have a contact form (e.g. Contact Form 7, Gravity Forms, or Ninja Forms). Contact forms collect information such as the person’s name, email address, and IP address. You’re allowed to collect this information, as it’s a legitimate business interest that will enable you to answer their query. But you still need to disclose you are collecting and storing this information (even though it seems obvious).

Your Privacy Policy will need to include what information you collect on your contact form, and what it is used for. The WP GDPR Compliance plugin for WordPress will add a tickbox to your Contact Form 7 or Gravity Forms contact form. It takes about two minutes to install and activate.

7. Update Your Comments Form

Most blogs have a comments section. This collects your name, website, email address, and IP address, as well as your message. This is private information, and is stored by WordPress, so we need consent to store this information.

The WP GDPR Compliance plugin also handles comments, which means you’ve covered two items with one plugin.

8. Create or Update Your Cookies Policy

Most websites use cookies, and EU law requires website owners to advise visitors of this fact, and obtain their consent to using cookies. WordPress plugins such as the EU Cookie Law Widget help site owners comply.

Click here to learn more about cookies. Cookies can be addressed as part of your Privacy Policy, or in a separate Cookie Policy.

If you use WordPress, check out the GDPR Cookie Compliance plugin. It’s easy to install and customise.

 

Is your website GDPR-ready?