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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.

Paths to Publishing - Small Press

Paths to Publishing 2 | Small Presses (An #AuthorToolBoxBlogHop Post)

Last week I talked about traditional publishing, specifically discussing large publishers. This week I’m looking at another area of traditional publishing: the small press.

Small presses and micropresses follow the same business principles as the major traditional publishers. Small presses take on the full financial responsibility for publishing and distributing the book, although you’re less likely to see their books on the shelf at your local store, or in your library.

Many will accept direct submissions from authors.

Few small presses pay advances, but all pay royalties. As with trade publishers, reputable small presses don’t charge you for publishing or require any compulsory book purchases (if they do, they’re a vanity press, which we’ll get to in a later post).

Paths to Publishing: Small Press | The potential problem with small presses is that they are often less experienced publishers, which can impact on quality. #WriteTip #PubTip Click To Tweet

The main differences between a larger publisher and a small press are:

Small presses are more likely to be owned by individuals.

Trade publishers are often owned by multinational corporations or churches (in the Christian arena). This means the person you are dealing with in a small press has an actual stake in the success of your book.

Small presses will have a smaller team

The owner may well be the acquisitions editor, the structural editor, the line editor, the copy editor, the proofreader, the formatter, the cover designer, and the sales and marketing department. This has advantages and disadvantages: it means the person you’re dealing with is the one with the power to make decisions, but it may mean the publisher becomes stretched too thin, or are undertaking roles they aren’t suited for.

A small press is less likely to pay advances.

However, they often pay higher royalties than the major publishers, especially for digital sales (although it can be argued a higher royalty rate is only useful if the book is selling).

Small presses may offer digital-only or digital-first contracts.

This means only books with a high enough ebook sales record will get printed and distributed. Alternatively, they may sell paperback copies through a print-on-demand service such as IngramSpark rather than printing and distributing stock (because printing and warehousing costs money).

Small presses may not distribute to bookstores.

This is a factor of cost: books are distributed to bookstores on a sale-or-return basis, and a small business may not have the financial backing to make in-store sales financially viable.

Advantages of a Small Press

Most small presses accept unsolicited submissions from unagented writers.

However, just because you can submit doesn’t mean you should. I find many small presses produce books with bad writing, amateur covers, insufficient editing, and little or no marketing support. You might be better off self-publishing (or not publishing) rather than submitting to a bad small press.

Here are some suggestions of what to look for before submitting to a small press:

A good small press will operate in a niche (e.g. Christian romance)

They can’t be all things to all people, and they don’t try.

Cover art will be professional, and reflect the specific genre.

While their cover art won’t reach the standard of the best Big Five publishers, it will be as good as the cover art of the best indie publishers. Readers do judge books by their covers, and many of the small presses (unfortunately) feature cover art best described as average.

The writing and the editing should be excellent.

I often find the copyediting is solid, in that there are few or no typographical errors, but there are fundamental writing issues (e.g. headhopping, or telling not showing). Mistakes like these show the publisher or their editors lack an understanding of the essentials of good fiction. Small presses who produce excellent non-fiction may well be lacking in the necessary skills to produce excellent fiction—and vice-versa.

Books are available in major online stores.

However, books may not be available in physical bookstores, especially if the small press utilises a digital-first or digital-only model to control costs.

Prices are competitive for both ebooks and paperbacks.

Readers are unlikely to pay more than USD 5.99 for the ebook version of a full-length novel (80,000–90,000 words) from an unknown author or publisher. Paperbacks should retail at USD 12.99—USD 15.99 to be competitive with the major publishers.

What next?

Once you are confident the small press has the high standards your book deserves, make sure your book shines. To employ a cliché, you only get one chance to make a first impression, and you don’t want to waste that chance on a manuscript that has issues you didn’t fix because you didn’t know they were issues.

Paths to Publishing 2 - the Small Press | Advantages and disadvantages of publishing with a small press #AuthorToolboxBlogHop #PupTip Click To Tweet

There are an increasing number of small presses and micropresses publishing Christian fiction. To receive a current list, click here and sign up to my monthly newsletter.

Next week I’ll be looking at self-publishing and hybrid authors (authors who trade publish and self-publish).

Meanwhile, what questions do you have about small presses? What advice do you have to share?

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:
Paths to publishing - trade publishing

Paths to Publishing 1 | Trade Publishing

When new writers ask how to get published, they’re usually asking how to get published by a traditional royalty-paying publisher, one who will get their books in bookshops. What they often don’t know is there are other ways to publish—and there are “publishers” who prey on newbie writers.

It’s important for all writers to know and understand the main paths to publishing, and the advantages and disadvantages of each.

Over the next four weeks I’m going cover the four main paths to publishing:

1. Trade Publishing
2. Small Press Publishing
3. Self-Publishing
4. Vanity Publishing

Note that while these are all options, only three of them are options worth considering, and the “best” option will depend on your personal aims in writing and publishing. There is no one right answer for everyone. But there is one wrong answer!

Trade Publishing

Trade publishing is the official term for what can also be called traditional publishing, trad publishing, or legacy publishing. It’s what most people mean when they say “publishing”.

If you visit your local bookstore or library, most of the books you see on the shelves will have come through these big trade publishers, with names like HarperCollins, Penguin, Random House, or Simon & Schuster.

Most publishing houses have a range of imprints, each of which will target a different market.

For example, Harlequin, Love Inspired, Mills & Boon, Thomas Nelson and Zondervan are all imprints of HarperCollins.

Few trade publishers accept direct submissions from new authors, preferring to deal directly with literary agents. (Click here to read my post on how to find a Christian literary agent.) Authors are paid through advances and royalties, with a portion (usually 15%) of each payment going to their agent.

Under the trade publishing model, an author writes a book, and a publisher purchases the rights to publish and sell the book in specified formats (e.g. hardcover, paperback, digital, audiobook) and in specified locations (e.g. the United States and Canada, Australasia) in a specified language (e.g. English).

In return for the specified rights, the publisher will pay the author a royalty on the sale of each book. The royalty is expressed either as a percentage of the recommended retail price, or as a percentage of the actual selling price. Trade publishers may also pay an advance.

A publishing advance is similar to asking the boss for an advance.

It is an up-front payment which will be credited against future earnings (in this case, royalty payments). An author who gets an advance won’t get any other payments from the publisher until the book has sold enough copies that the royalties on the sold copies equal the advance payment made. In publishing terms, this means the advance has “earned out”.

For many Christian fiction authors, this is the publishing dream.

A contract from one of the major publishers, whether a Big Five imprint, or one of the major independent publishers operating exclusively within the Christian fiction market. These are probably are the publishers who publish your favourite Christian writers, authors like Irene Hannon, Karen Kingsbury, DiAnn Mills, James L Rubart or Susan May Warren.

These are the paperbacks you see in your local Christian bookstore, online at Amazon or Christian Book Distributors or Koorong, and in large print hardcover at your local library.

The big publishers publish four or more fiction titles a month. They have beautiful covers. The books are well written and well edited. The authors have pretty websites. Their Amazon pages are full of glowing reviews (often because the publishers have included an expensive blog tour as part of the book’s marketing package).

It’s easy to see why any Christian fiction author would want to be published with one of these companies. It’s a sign you’re a ‘real’ author; you’ve made it.

But there is a down side.

While these publishers produce four or more fiction titles a month, that’s only a tiny fraction of the manuscripts submitted to them. Most of their books will be from established authors. They may have as few as six slots in their annual publishing schedule for novels from a debut authors.

That means a lot of competition for those coveted publishing contracts, and a lot of pressure to deliver in order to win the next contract.

Next week, I’ll be back to look at small presses: trade publishers which don’t require an agent. In the meantime, what questions do you have about trade publishing?

9 Keys to Writing Your First Novel

9 Keys to Writing Your First Novel

I regularly see social media posts from aspiring fiction authors looking for tips on writing their first novel. But there is more to writing than just writing. At least, according to Stephen King:

If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot - Stephen King

I’ve been reading Christian fiction for over twenty years.

I’ve seen trends come and trends go, which means I’ve got a good feel for the genre and have learned what publishers buy.

And I’ve been working as a freelance editor specialising in Christian fiction for the last seven years, which means I’ve seen a lot of manuscripts, good and bad, and have learned something about the craft of writing from each one. I’ve attended conferences featuring speakers such as James Scott Bell, Michael Hauge, and Damon Suede. I’ve undertaken online training courses from the Christian PEN, Author Accelerator, and Lawson Writer’s Academy, and I’ve completed a hands-on immersion course with international speaker and writing coach Margie Lawson.

I’ve also read dozens of books on writing craft and dozens more books on book marketing. Each has contributed to my understanding of how to write, edit, publish and market books in this new world. A world where aspiring authors don’t need an agent and a big-name publisher. A world where authors can self-publish without the stigma of ‘vanity’ publishing.

I’ve learned a thing or two.

So here are my nine keys to writing your first novel. Or your tenth.

1. Understand Genre

Publishers publish by genre, booksellers organise their stores by genre, and readers read by genre. Your book has a better chance of succeeding if you understand what genre it is, and meet the expectations of readers of that genre. For example, a romance novel has to have a happy ending in which the hero and heroine are together. If he dies at the end, it’s not a romance novel.

Yes, authors do can do genre mashups (Amish Vampires in Space springs to mind), but even that adheres to the expectations of each of the constituent genres (I think. I don’t read vampire novels, so don’t know how it stacks up against them).

Understand your genre, and write to the norms of that genre.

2. Write What You Love

If you love trashy romance, write romance novels. Don’t write highbrow literary fiction with beautiful language but where nothing much happens. Don’t write gung-ho action adventure novels in which the hero fights his way through innumerable blockages in order to reach his goal and get the girl. Conversely, if you read literary fiction, don’t write Amish romance because someone tells you that’s what sells.

Write what you love for two reasons. If you’re writing in a genre you love to read, you’ll know the conventions of the genre and what the reader is looking for. And your writing will flow better because it’s something you want to write (unlike so many of those creative writing assignments in school).

3. Read what you write

Read in your genre. Read outside your genre.

Read old books. Read new books.

Read novels which have won awards, and try to work out why they won. Read award-winning novels as judged by industry professionals (e.g. the Christy Awards), by writers (e.g. the Carol Awards) and by readers (e.g. the INSPY Awards). Read the Christian novels I review on my author website.

4. Study the Big Picture

The big picture element of writing is the relationship between plot and story and structure and characterisation. Most craft books focus on one or two of these aspects, but the more I read, the more I come to believe that you can’t look at any one of these in isolation. They all need to be considered as you’re writing your first novel.

Here are some books I recommend which examine these big picture elements:

5. Study the Technical Craft of Fiction

You also need to understand the basics of modern fiction. Yes, Jane Austen and Charles Dickens were great writers, and you can look to them for insight into the big picture elements. But don’t try and emulate the way they wrote.

Novel writing has changed a lot in the two hundred years since Austen was first published. Writing your first novel in Jane Austen’s style won’t win you many fans. Even novels from the 1990’s might be too old-fashioned in terms of style to be of benefit in terms of their technical writing craft. (Although they will still be of benefit in terms of the big picture elements.)

The modern writer needs to understand:

  • Point of View
  • Showing not telling
  • Scene and sequel

For advice on these issues, try:

6. Understand the Mechanics of English

There is no point in knowing how to craft a great novel if you don’t have the technical writing skills to get it on the page so people can read and understand it. Christian editor (and founder of The Christian Proofreaders and Editors Network) Kathy Ide calls this the PUGS: Punctuation, (word) Usage, Grammar and Spelling. There is nothing worse than picking up a novel which is hard to read because the author doesn’t understand how to order words in a sentence for maximum reader impact.

For advice on actual writing, I recommend:

7. Join a Community

You’ll learn as much from your fellow writers as you will from books, so join a community of writers. This could be online (e.g. Facebook groups such as Australasian Christian Writers). It could be a formal organisation (e.g. Romance Writers of America or Australia or New Zealand, American Christian Fiction Writers or Omega Writers or New Zealand Christian Writers). It could be a Christian group or a general market group. It could be for fiction writers or all writers. Just find a group, join it, participate, and learn.

8. Write

You can study too much. It was true when Ecclesiastes was written and it is true today. Study, but ensure you get words down on paper as well. Or get pixels on a computer screen.

9. Learn to Self-Edit

Yes, I’m a freelance editor so you’d think I’d have a vested interest in people not editing their own work, to give me more to do. But correcting simple mistakes the author could have corrected for themselves isn’t much fun, and means I might get too focussed on correcting commas and hyphens at the expense of more fundamental questions of plot and style. And anyway, the cleaner the manuscript in terms of writing mechanics, the cheaper the edit.

Tools like Grammarly and ProWritingAid can help with the most technical side of this self-editing, identifying things like passive voice and overused words and commonly misused words.

But you need a human to pick up that your heroine’s hair colour changes three times without her ever visiting a hairdresser, or that there is headhopping in Chapter Four or that you have a nasty habit of structuring every sentence the same or that your mute minor character actually had a couple of lines before she miraculously started talking again.

For advice on how to self-edit your novel, I recommend:

Do you have any questions about writing? Ask in the comments.

Finally …

This is my last post for 2018. I’ll be spending the holidays with my family, and will be back on Wednesday 9 January. I wish you all the best for a blessed Christmas and a happy and productive 2019!

Dear Editor | Does my Main Character have to be Likeable?

Dear Editor | Does my Main Character Have to be Likeable?

I often see writers discussing whether their characters have to be likeable. Obviously not all characters have to be likeable: the role of the antagonist is often to be unlikeable. But what about our main character? Do our main characters have to be likeable? Is this a good #WriteTip, or more #BadWritingAdvice?

Do our main characters have to be likeable? Is this a good #WriteTip, or more #BadWritingAdvice? Click To Tweet

In my manuscript assessments, I often refer to James Scot Bell’s LOCK elements of a novel. It says that in order to fulfill reader expectations, every plot has to have:

  • Lead
  • Opposition
  • Conflict
  • Knockout

The Lead has to be a character readers can bond with, and there are four ways writers can create this bond. The Lead needs to be a character we can identify with, someone we care about, someone who is likeable, and someone facing an emotional struggle.

But does the Lead have to be likeable?

Not necessarily. Michael Hague says writers (and screenwriters) need to create characters readers can engage with emotionally, and creating a likeable character is one way to achieve that aim. But characters don’t have to be likeable if they have other qualities that will engage the reader (or viewer). For instance, a character could be someone we feel sympathy for, or someone who we worry about because they are facing some kind of physical, financial, or emotional threat.

Bell agrees. He says:

Not all Leads are likeable, of course. When rendering a negative Lead (someone who does things we don’t like), substitute power. Characters who have power over their world and other characters—because of charm, intelligence, or competence in their field—fascinate.

Hague agrees:

Powerful heroes hold a fascination for an audience and elicit empathy on an almost fantasy level.

Hague cites four forms of power:

  • Power over other people
  • Power to do what needs to be done
  • Power to express one’s feelings
  • Superpowers

Well, I guess that explains Lex Luthor, The Joker, and other cartoon evildoers. They might not be likeable … but there is something compelling, something fascinating, about even the most unlikeable characters. The same could be said for popular fantasy series Game of Thrones.

So, no, your characters don’t have to be likeable. They can be crazed, power-hungry megalomaniacs.

But does this mean you can make your main character unlikeable?

That depends on your genre and target reader.

I read a lot of romance, and I believe romance demands likeable characters.

There are two essential factors in a a romance novel (as defined by Romance Writers of America):

  • The novel must focus on a central love story.
  • The novel must have an emotionally satisfying ending (aka a happy-ever-after ending).

I find that I have to like both the hero and the heroine in order to believe in that central love story, and to want the characters to have that required happy-ever-after ending. Give me two likeable characters, even characters who appear to be polar opposites, and I’ll be wanting them to get together from the moment they meet.

But give me a whining female lead, and I wonder what the hero sees in her. The same for stupid women—I like my heroines to be intelligent. I don’t do lazy. Or angry, or focusing on career over family and relationships (that’s a valid life choice for some women. But not women who want to be heroines in romance novels).

Don’t get me wrong. I’m an equal opportunity hater. I also don’t like whining men (yeah, yeah. Men don’t whine. Except when they do). I don’t like stupid men, lazy men, or men with anger issues, or men who are focused on their careers more than their families and relationships.

Male characters like that make me wonder why the female is pursuing him. Grow some self-respect, ditch this guy, and find a good Christian man who values you for who you are. Yes, it’s so much easier to make these judgments with fictional characters than in real life.

Of course, if neither character is likeable, then I’m inclined to think they deserve each other and abandon the book.

So in romance novels, I insist on likeable characters.

What about other genres?

Likeability might matter less in genres where the focus is less on the likeability of the main character and more on his or her skills.

For example, in a legal thriller, we want to see a competent lawyer, someone who will use his or her legal skills to best the evildoer in court. The same often holds true in other suspense genres: medical thriller (think of the TV show, House), thrillers, or police procedurals. We’re less concerned with whether the main character is likeable in the traditional sense, and more with whether justice will be served through the action of the (unlikeable) main character.

Likeability takes second place to ability.

We can respect a competent main character even if they aren’t necessarily likeable.

But there are limits. I remember reading one speculative thriller, the first in a series of four. I gave up about halfway through the first book when I realised the too-stupid-to-live character wasn’t going to die a fast, horrible death. No. She was being set up to be the main character across the whole series.

I prefer to read about characters who are likeable. I also like to read novels with a low body count, and where it’s easy to tell the goodies from the evildoers. But that is more a reflection of my personal reading preferences rather than a you-must-create-likeable-characters rule.

It might also be that many writers choose to create a likeable character who we feel sympathy towards because she is facing some kind of threat—ticking all three of Hauge’s boxes, and all four of Bell’s elements. It might be that many writers chose to create a likeable character because that’s what sells.

Do our characters have to be likeable? It might be that many writers chose to create a likeable character because that's what sells #WriteTip Click To Tweet

What do you think? Do you prefer to read about likeable characters? What exceptions can you think of?

Dear Editor: How do you keep God first in marketing?

Dear Editor | How do you keep God first in marketing?

Yes, this is another post taken from a question I saw in a Facebook group:

How do you market your books in a way that shows humility and points to Christ?

The fact you’re asking this question means you’re already well on the way to making sure your marketing is focused on God, not you. That’s great.

But I suspect it also means that you’ve bought into the common lie about what marketing is—that marketing is the annoying and sometimes smarmy push-push-push used to make the sale.

It isn’t.

Making the sale is selling. That’s important, but it’s not marketing. Marketing is about creating a product or service a segment of people will want to buy, then bringing that product or services to the attention of that segment.

Traditional marketing focuses on the four P’s: Product, Place, Price, and Promotion.

Even when I studied marketing, back in the dark ages of the early 1990’s, promotion was merely one aspect of marketing. And that was for traditional consumer goods marketing.

Now I believe there are seven Ps for the Christian author to consider: Prayer, Product, Package, Place, Price, Promotion, and Platform.

Let’s take a brief look at each:

Prayer

As Christians, our marketing should begin in prayer. It should end in prayer. It should be bathed in prayer. We need to be seeking God to know what he wants us to write—what topics, what formats, what word count. We need to know how and when he wants us to publish—publish a physical book or share our writing on a website or blog? Traditional publication or self-publishing?

(The only wrong answer here is vanity publishing; I believe that for 99% of authors or more, a vanity publisher is a bad deal because it’s bad stewardship of our financial resources. Having said that, even the owners and employees of vanity publishers need to hear the gospel, so if that’s the job God has given you, do it and do it well.)

Product

Traditional marketing starts with Product: offering a product (or service) customers will want to buy.

For writers, this means writing the best book or blog post we can write. It means learning to write, and learning to write well. Learning, learning, learning. Then writing, writing, writing. Writing the book or the blog post God calls us to write. It doesn’t matter whether we write fiction or non-fiction, literary or genre. It doesn’t even matter if it’s a book or not. Marketing our writing starts with writing well.

Seek excellence, because excellence honours God.

Package

Package is about taking that product and turning it into something the reader can access.

For a book, this means hiring the best editor we can afford—someone who will take your book apart and put it back together again, only better. Then we hire the best cover designer you can find, someone who will design a cover that appeals to your target reader. Package also includes the formats in which you sell your book: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook, podcast.

But not all writing has to be published in a book. Letters, blog posts, magazine articles, devotionals … all are valid ways of writing in obedience to God’s call. Consider how these shorter offerings can be packaged for the reader.

Place and Price

Traditional marketing then moves onto Place and Price: distributing our Product to our target customers (Place) at a Price they are willing to pay.

For traditionally published authors, the publisher will control Place and Price.

If we self-publish, then our big decisions are Place (sell ebooks exclusively through Amazon or do you go “wide” and sell through other retailers as well) and Price (largely driven by what readers expect to pay, which is related to what other authors in your genre charge). Remember, the worker is worth his or her hire, so there is nothing wrong with charging for our work. Paul supported his missionary journeys by making tents.

We might decide to give our work away, either as a free book or by writing for a blog. That’s a valid decision if we’re writing for God, as “free” removes one of the barriers to making a sale. But making our writing freely available doesn’t mean our writing is read—that’s going to come back to Product and Promotion.

Promotion

Promotion is the final aspect of traditional marketing. Traditional promotion was a combination of push and pull marketing—pushing advertisements out to the world at large, and hoping to Pull customers into the store to buy your product.

Now we’re a little more sophisticated. We can target our advertisements on sites like Amazon and Facebook and Goodreads, to (hopefully) focus only on our target customer. We can cross-promote with other authors in the same genre. And we can promote ourselves and others using our Platform.

Platform

Platform is my preferred method of promotion because it reflects the approach I believe we need to take to marketing: to identify our audience, and seek to serve them.

Platform allows us to emulate Jesus by serving others, not ourselves.

What does this mean? Well, serving ourselves is easy to identify: it’s the author who tweets “buy my book” every six minutes of every hour of every day. It’s the author who constantly pins her own book covers. It’s the author who constantly posts quotes from her own books on Facebook and Instagram. It’s the me-me-me author who never talks about anyone but herself, who never responds to comments or social media mentions because her “marketing” is all on autopilot so she can focus on obsessing about her sales (and grouching because she’s in Facebook jail for self-promoting her book in a hundred Facebook groups in quick succession).

Serving others is harder. It requires more up-front thought, and more effort than scheduling the same 1,600 Tweets each week.

Serving others is about:

  • Identifying our target reader.
  • Working out what subjects our target reader is interested in.
  • Serving our current and potential readers by finding and posting content about those subjects.

There is a name for this: content marketing.

The principle of content marketing is that we don’t directly market ourselves. Instead, we share information that serves others, and use that as the way to attract potential readers. It’s about being real and authentic, about engaging with our readers and turning them into fans.

Good content marketing follows the 80:20 rule:

  • 80% of what you share is information (content) that will interest and engage your target reader.
  • Only 20% of what you share is direct self-promotion. And even that should still be designed to interest and engage your target reader.

If we’re actively marketing to a Christian audience, then some of that content will point directly to Christ. For instance, we can share:

  • Bible quote memes.
  • Inspiring Christian quotes.
  • Devotional posts.
  • Deeper thoughts on God and the Bible.

We can still point to Christ even while marketing to a mainstream audience. For example, one Christian author I know who writes general market romance has a link to Bear Grylls advertising the Alpha course on the bottom of her website. Another is a pastor’s wife, and often posts about church services or events. Others are more subtle—you can see their Christian faith come through in their writing. It’s not overtly Christian, but it still points to Christ for those who have ears to hear.

Our focus on on serving your audience.

God has given us a message to share through our writing. He therefore wants us to share that message. To do otherwise would be to hide our light under a bushel.

And we can share that in humility and in a Christ-like manner. Jesus was the Messiah, yet didn’t promote himself. He said very unpromotional things, like the least shall be first. He pointed to His Father in all things. We can do the same.

This method of marketing isn’t going to produce instant results.

It’s playing a long game. So is God. It’s giving without expectation. As Jesus did. It’s about delivering the message God has placed on our hearts, and trusting the Holy Spirit to get it to the people who need it.

At the end of the day, if we are focused on God, if we are writing and publishing what you believe He has called us to write and publish, then we’re going to have to trust Him with the results. Bathe our writing in prayer, sow our seeds, serve others, and trust God to bring His harvest in His time.

Meanwhile, if you’d like help in establishing a Christ-centred Platform, click here to check out the Kick-Start Your Author Platform Marketing Challenge.

What content can you share that will promote your writing and point to Christ?

Dear Editor - How long should my novel be? Word Count in fiction

Dear Editor | How Long Should my Novel Be?

How long should a novel be? This is a common question from first-time authors. Unfortunately, the answer is often vague: it depends.

First, let’s discuss the way we measure the length of a novel.

It was too difficult to count words in the days before word processors with an automatic word count feature, so manuscript length was measured in pages. One page, typed double-spaced and with a ½ inch (1.27cm) indent at the beginning of each paragraph was counted as 250 words. A writer aiming to write 1,000 words a day would therefore write around four pages, and a novel was somewhere between 300 and 400 pages.

The same holds true today: the novels you see in the bookstore or library are usually somewhere between 300 and 400 pages, which is approximately 75,000 to 100,000 words.

What If my Word Count is Shorter?

Sure, some novels are shorter than 75,000 words, depending on genre and the target age of the reader. But if we’re talking about a novel written for adults, then a shorter manuscript might not be classified as a novel. The Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America classifies Nebula Award submissions into four categories based on word count:

  • Short story: under 7,500
  • Novelette: between 7,500 and 17,500
  • Novella: between 17,500 and 40,000
  • Novel: over 40,000

American Christian Fiction Writers classify a novella as between 15,000 and 45,000 words, and a short novel as 45,000 to 70,000 words. Short novels are often category romance (see below). Publishers rarely publish a novella as a stand-alone story, but they may be published as part of a collection, or as the introduction to a new series.

Stories can go shorter: flash fiction (the kind often included in magazines) is between 100 and 1,000 words. And a story that is exactly 100 words long is a drabble.

What If my Word Count is Longer?

Manuscripts can go longer. Novels over 110,000 words are generally classed as epics or sagas, and are usually from well-known authors such as George RR Martin or JK Rowling. Publishers are more likely to take a risk on a long novel from an author with a track history of solid sales. Having a novel that is part of a series may help, as the publisher knows they will get some sell-through sales.

But consider: does the novel need to be this long?

A high word count may mean the author needs to do more editing. Or it may be a factor of genre. Or it may be that the author didn’t realize publishers (and readers) do have expectations around word count.

If you have a longer novel, make sure you are telling more story, not just adding more words. Many of the 450-page novels I read could have told the story more effectively using fewer words. Their stories could have benefited from stronger editing.

Word Count Depends on Genre

Certain genres require more words. Science fiction and fantasy novels often require a large amount of worldbuilding—introducing the reader to the world the author has created, introducing the people which inhabit the world and their cultures and customs, and (sometimes) explaining the science and technology. This information must be shown, not told, and showing almost always takes more words than telling.

Historical fiction also requires a degree of worldbuilding to bring the reader into the setting—and the further removed that time and place is from our own, the more information the author is going to have to give the reader in order to immerse the reader in the setting. Again, this information must be shown, not told.

In contrast, a contemporary romance or mystery novel requires less in the way of explaining the setting. Readers live in the modern world, and we don’t need to be shown what an iPhone is or does. Equally, familiar historical settings (e.g. Regency England or Civil War America) need little introduction. Readers often know these settings as well as or better than the authors.

Typical word counts for common genres are:

  • Category romance (e.g. Love Inspired): 55,000 to 60,000 words)
  • Cozy mystery: 65,000 to 90,000 words
  • Crime: 70,000 to 90,000 words
  • Fantasy: 90,000 to 120,000 words
  • Historical fiction: 80,000 to 110,000 words
  • Mystery: 70,000 to 90,000 words
  • Romance: 70,000 to 90,000 words
  • Rom-com: 70,000 to 90,000 words
  • Science Fiction: 90,000 to 110,000 words
  • Suspense: 70,000 to 90,000 words
  • Thriller: 80,000 to 100,000 words
  • Women’s fiction: 80,000 to 100,000 words

For more information, check out:

Word Count Depends on Target Age

Young Adult novels tend to be shorter than adult novels, so between 45,000 and 70,000 words, but the word count is flexible (especially in science fiction or fantasy).

Middle Grade can be anything from 20,000 to 50,000 words or more, but average around 35,000 words. For lower middle grade readers (ages 7 to 10), aim for the lower end of this range. You can go higher for upper middle grade.

Picture books for children are almost always 32 pages and around 500 words.

What Do I Do if my Book is Too Long?

Edit.

In On Writing, Stephen King advises that authors should cut around 10% of their word count in their second revision, as this will make the writing tighter and improve pace. I find I have no trouble cutting 10% of the word count in many novels I edit. If this thought scares you, here are some books which might help:

But this assumes the basic structure of your novel is sound. Reedsy says:

Most of the time, an overly long word count is a symptom of major plot or pacing problems in a novel — issues that need to be solved during the revision process.

A manuscript assessment is a great way to identify major plot or pacing problems. Or work with a critique partner or beta reader. They can help you identify plot or pacing issues that could reduce the word count.

Publishing

If you’re planning to submit to a traditional publisher, then it’s in your best interest to ensure your word count is consistent with publisher (and reader) expectations, which means abiding by the word counts above.

If you are planning to self-publish, then your word count could be shorter or longer than these guidelines. Yes, there are exceptions. Outlander by Diana Gabaldon is 305,000 words. The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova is 240,000 words.

However, don’t plan on being the exception. As Chuck Sambuchino says at Writers Digest:

Aiming to be the exception is setting yourself up for disappointment.

A lot of self-published authors write short fiction—it’s quicker to write, which enables them to publish more books. Many authors self-publish longer books, because they can.

Whether you’re writing short, on target, or long, make sure your writing is top-notch. Be ruthless. Tighten your sentences. Cut anything that doesn’t advance the story or deepen characterization.

Don’t self-publish a bloated 150,000-word saga just because you can.

How long is your work-in-progress? Does your word count fit within these guidelines?

Dear Editor: Deity Pronouns - Should we Capitalize Pronouns Referring to God or Jesus?

Dear Editor: Should we Capitalize Pronouns Referring to God or Jesus?

Dear Editor: Should we Capitalize Deity Pronouns?

This question has recently been raised in one of the (many) Facebook groups I’m a member of. This group happened to be a Christian reader group, but it’s a question that seemingly flummoxes readers and writers alike.

Do we need to capitalize personal pronouns when referring to God?

Style manuals refer to pronouns such as He, His, Him, and Your when referring to God as deity pronouns.

I was taught that we capitalize deity pronouns as a matter of respect and honour (dubious, as I’ll show below). I was also taught that we use double quotation marks for speech (still true), single quotation marks for speech (now considered dated), and to add a comma where I’d add a pause if reading aloud (not true, and a topic probably best left for another blog post).

The Facebook group’s answers unhelpfully ranged from “Yes, always” to “No, never” with a healthy sprinkling of “Sometimes” and “It depends”. Several respondents based their answers based on the practice in their Bibles … which were equally inconsistent (for those who are interested, compare the New International Version with the New American Standard Bible).

Surely there is an answer. That’s why we have style guides!

What is a style guide?

Most publishers have a style guide: a set of rules governing how they treat a range of editing questions including spelling, grammar, punctuation, and word usage. Editors will follow the guidelines of one (or more) of these style guides in editing or proofreading a manuscript and may also create a style sheet explaining the spelling or treatment of words specific to that manuscript to ensure correctness and consistency.

Chicago Manual of Style (CMOS)

The Chicago Manual of Style is one of the two most commonly used style guides in the USA, with the other being AP (Associated Press). As a broad generalization, CMOS is more commonly used for fiction, and AP is more common in journalism. Non-fiction publishers may follow CMOS or may use a genre-specific style guide.

CMOS says (8.95):

Pronouns referring to God or Jesus are not capitalized unless a particular author or publisher prefers otherwise.

So that’s one vote for not capitalizing deity pronouns … but the author can decide.

The New Oxford Style Manual (NOSM)

The New Oxford Style Manual is one of the major UK style manuals and incorporates New Hart’s Rules (the UK equivalent of Elements of Style by Strunk & White). The NOSM (like CMOS) grew out of the need for the Oxford University Press to have a consistent view on style for their publishing business.

NOSM says (p97):

Use lower case for pronouns referring to God where the reference is clear, unless the author specifies otherwise.

That’s another vote for lowercasing deity pronouns unless the author prefers capitalization.

The Australian Style Manual (ASM)

The Style Manual is the official style manual used by the Australian government, as well as many Australian publishers and authors. New Zealand publishers may also use it, as although it’s not new (2002), it’s considerably newer than the local equivalent, which is 1995). It’s also shorter and easier to read than CMOS! ASM says (p127):

In the past, the capital letter assigned to God was often extended to the attendant pronouns … but this is now less common.

That’s a non-answer. We don’t want to know what’s common or uncommon. We want to know what’s right!

The Christian Writer’s Manual of Style (CWMS)

Zondervan (publishers of the New International Version of the Bible) recognize that the major style guides don’t address many of the style issues raised by those writing for a Christian audience, so they publish their own style guide (written by Robert Hudson). Many Christian publishers use CWMS, either alone or in conjunction with another style guide such as CMOS.

The Christian Writer’s Manual of Style says (p145):

Most publishers, religious and general, use the lowercase style … to conform to the two most popular versions of the Bible (the bestselling New International Version and the historically dominant King James Version).

That’s another vote for telling us what people do. Helpful. Not.

It might be worth pointing out that Zondervan publish the NIV. Zondervan are owned by HarperCollins, who also publish the New King James Version, which also lowercases these “deity pronouns”.

CWMS points out that (despite popular belief) we don’t capitalize as a way to show respect or honour. After all, we capitalize God and Satan, yet only one deserves our honour.

In addition, there is no true historical precedent for capitalizing. Capitalization became trendy when lots of Nouns were being Capitalized for Emphasis (a trend which rightly disturbed grammarians). William Tyndale (translator of one of the earliest English Bibles) didn’t consistently capitalize God, let alone He or Him (or he or him), and neither Hebrew nor Greek distinguishes between lowercase and capital letters the way English does, so the original Scriptures provide no guidance.

What CWMS does say is this:

[Capitalizing] gives a book, at best, a dated, Victorian feel, and at worst, an aura of irrelevance to modern readers.

That’s worth thinking about—no one wants to their work to be considered dated or irrelevant.

A fiction author may therefore consider it appropriate to use He and Him in a historical novel. That may well the case, but the “rule” shouldn’t hold true for all historical fiction. It would appear odd for Jesus to refer to himself as “Me” in a biblical novel at the same time as his enemies were referring to him (Him?) as “You”.

CWMS goes on to point out that capitalization can be confusing for younger readers (who were never taught that deity pronouns should be capitalised). Also, using capitals could imply emphasis where none was intended.

Summary

Yes, the major style guides prefer that personal pronouns referring to God are not capitalized. But they also allow for author (or publisher) preference.

So if you (or your client) wants to capitalize He and Him, You and Your, then they can. My preference would be only to capitalize the pronouns referring to God in historical fiction where capitalization was consistent with the time setting (e.g. for novels set in Victorian England, but not Roman Israel).

The most important factor in any editing decision is consistency.

We can refer to Jesus as He or he, Him or him, but we must choose one and apply that style choice consistently. Neither He nor he is incorrect but using He and he is definitely wrong.

What do you think? Do you capitalize deity pronouns? Why or why not?

Amazon Geoblocking

Geoblocking on Amazon: 13 Reasons Why I Don’t Want to Switch from Amazon.com to Amazon Australia

Authors (and readers) woke up over the weekend and found that thousands of books had disappeared from the Amazon store.

Only they hadn’t. Really. Except they had. Let’s take a look …

Here is the paperback version of Solo Tu by Narelle Atkins on Amazon.com:

It’s USD 8.99, which is around NZ 13.36 (or NZD 15.36 including sales tax). Here is the sales page on Amazon Australia:

Note the price difference for the paperback? That $26.01 is a lot more expensive than buying the equivalent book from Amazon US, even allowing for New Zealand sales tax (GST) and exchange rate differences.

And what do I get I search for the same book on Amazon US? Nothing. That’s right. Nothing.

But if I go back to the Kindle sales page on Amazon Australia and tweak the website address to read “.com” instead of “.com.au”, here’s what I get:

Voila! The Kindle version is for sale. But I can’t buy it, and I can’t see the price.

Amazon geoblocking is a half-baked solution to a non-problem which many authors are blaming for huge losses in income … which makes sense. How can Amazon customers buy or borrow books that don’t exist?

Update

I can now see Solo Tu on Amazon.com again, and it’s available to buy. Let’s hope it stays that way, because I don’t want to be forced to move … as I explain below.

What is causing this?

There are currently two theories making the rounds. It could be that both are correct:

  1. Amazon is having database troubles.
  2. Amazon is using geoblocking to force customers to buy from their “local” store.

Amazon is having database troubles

It’s no secret that Amazon’s cloud databases are built on Oracle systems. It’s also no secret that Amazon have announced they’ll be moving away from Oracle by the end of 2020. Apparently, Amazon made a big shift in their databases on 1 November 2018, and the theory is this has messed with a lot of books.

This may be related to the problems with the recent move from CreateSpace to KDP Print. This is a move that’s been anticipated for a couple of years. It finally happened in September, with all authors forced to make the move.

But it isn’t only KDP Print or KDP Select books that are affected. Books from major trade publishers are also affected, although those seem to come and go. Two days ago, I was unable to buy the Kindle version of Transcription by Kate Atkinson at the Amazon US store. Today, I can.

Amazon is using geoblocking to force readers to buy from their country stores

Yes, I understand the financial rationale. If Amazon goes to the trouble and expense of setting up a Kindle store and/or a physical distribution centre in a country, then they want customers to buy from that store, not from the US store. There is also the teeny tiny issue of the Australian government believing Amazon should pay sales tax on sales made in Australia to Australians, but let’s leave that to the side for the moment.

But geoblocking (restricting access based on the users IP address) isn’t the answer. Forcing readers to buy from “local” isn’t what’s best for the customer. If shopping from Amazon Australia was best for me, don’t they think I’d have switched years ago? This behaviour makes a lie of Amazon’s stated position as “Earth’s most customer-centric company“.

But Amazon geoblocking isn’t good for customers who buy books.

And anything that isn’t good for readers also isn’t good for authors, because it encourages people to read less, or to buy other books (you know, books Amazon.com will actually sell them). Or it gives them (me) the push they’ve needed to check out another ebook store, such as Kobo or iBooks. Or to actually work out how to borrow ebooks from my local library.

As I see it, readers appear to have four options:

  1. Give in to the geoblocking and switch to the local Amazon store for Kindle purchases.
  2. Work around the geoblocking and wwitch their default address to a US address (e.g. Amazon HQ).
  3. Do nothing.
  4. Buy from Kobo or iBooks.

I’ve discussed these briefly in Where Have All the eBooks Gone? at International Christian Fiction Writers. But here I want to go into more detail about why the obvious answer—switching to the local Amazon store—is not a viable option for many Amazon customers. It didn’t take me long to come up with 13 reasons why. Or why not:

  1. Existing Kindle Library
  2. More Variety
  3. Better Sales
  4. eBook Gifting
  5. Gift Cards
  6. Giveways
  7. Reviews
  8. Currency Conversion
  9. Affiliate Links
  10. Embed Codes
  11. Kindle Family
  12. Audible Subscriptions
  13. Other Subscriptions

Existing Kindle Library

Switching from Amazon.com to Amazon. com.au means customers run the risk of losing access to their Amazon.com purchases. It shouldn’t happen, in theory, but I’ve heard of people having their entire Kindle purchase history wiped, so anything is possible.

Last time I checked, my Amazon.com purchases didn’t show. Now they do. Amazon assures me it’s to my benefit to change, but I disagree.

More Variety

Amazon.com has a wider variety of Kindle books available. Well, it did last week. It still does—it’s just I can’t buy most of them from Amazon.com. I’ve seen many complaints that customers can’t buy specialised books in the Australian store.

Better Sales

A lot of sales are only available at the US site, including free downloads.

Note that only US and UK residents can benefit from Kindle Countdown deals, which is annoying. But switching to Amazon Australia won’t get me Countdown deals either, so that’s a moot point.

ebook Gifting

Amazon US allows ebook gifting. The Australian site does not. You can check this in the screenshots above: the US site has a “Give as GIft” button below the buy button. This is missing from the Australian site.

Many authors, influencers, and bloggers (including me) like to be able to gift Kindle books to friends, fans, or contest winners.

Gift Cards

Amazon US allows customers to buy and give away gift cards. Authors, influencers, and bloggers often use gift cards as an incentive to get readers to perform some action e.g. comment on a blog post, or write a review (but not an Amazon review, as that would be against Amazon’s reviewing guidelines).

Giveaways

Amazon US allows customers to give away books as a promotional tool. Amazon Australia does not offer this feature.

Reviews

Customers have to spend USD 50 per year on an Amazon site in order to be able to review (something I’ve previously discussed). If I’m forced to move from the US to the Australian site, the time will soon come when I’m no longer able to review on the US site. Reviews have more visibility on the US site, and book promotion organisations require a minimum number of Amazon US reviews before they’ll promote a book. Restricting reviewers will make that target harder to meet.

Currency Conversion

Many Amazon customers are also Amazon affiliates or Amazon sellers. It makes sense for them to shop in the same currency they earn in. For most people, this is US dollars, because Amazon.com is the biggest store.

Affiliate Earnings

I’m an Amazon affiliate, which means if you click one of my links and buy something on Amazon, they’ll pay me a commission of around 4% for referring you as a customer. I don’t earn a lot in affiliate income, but what I do earn is paid out as Amazon US gift vouchers. I could get paid direct to my bank account, but the minimum payment is higher and much of it would be taken as fees.

I’ve also signed up for the Amazon Australia affiliate scheme. It only pays out to Australian bank accounts … which I don’t have, because I’m not Australian. Because Australia and New Zealand are different countries. Like the United States of America and Canada are different countries. It seems Amazon doesn’t understand this relatively simple fact of geography.

Embed Codes

Amazon offers embed codes so bloggers can embed a sample of a book on their blog post, like this:

This embed code was copied from the Australian website, but leads back to the US site. That’s great for US customers, but means there is no incentive to switch to Amazon Australia.

Kindle Family

I don’t use Kindle Family, but it is a scheme which allows family members to effectively share a Kindle account. There is a catch: the family has to live together and shop at the same store. So if one family member tries to tell Amazon he or she lives in the US (to be able to access the US store), then the Family is broken and they can no longer share the account.

Audible Subscriptions

Audible (Amazon audiobook) subscriptions are still on Amazon US. Yes, customers can transfer them, but that’s an added hassle, and one more place for things to go wrong.

Other Subscriptions

Some Amazon users subscribe to newspapers or magazines through Amazon US. I saw one person complain that when they tried to switch to Amazon Australia, they were warned their subscription would no longer be available.

So there you have it.

13 reasons why Amazon.com’s international customers will be reluctant to shift to their local store. I’m sure most international customers will be affected by at least one reason—and that’s only the impact of shifting as a reader.

Of course, there is always the possibility that this geoblocking is a temporary accident, an unintended side-effect of Amazon’s database upgrades. I hope so. Because there are at least 13 reasons why geoblocking is a bad idea for international customers.

Are you affected by Amazon’s new geoblocking? Are you planning to shift or stay? Why?

Giving feedback on a beta read

Dear Editor | How Do I Give Critical Feedback on a Beta Read?

It’s an awkward situation. An author friend has asked you to beta-read their book, and you agreed. But it needs work. What do you say when giving feedback?

Here are four possible approaches to giving feedback:

    • Be complimentary
    • Be clueless
    • Be complimentary and critical
    • Be critical

Be Complimentary

Personally, I don’t think being complimentary is a great idea. The point of a beta read is to find what needs improving in the story—and there is always something that can be improved. It doesn’t serve the writer or future paying readers if the beta reader only gives positive feedback … even if that’s what the writer wants. A writer has to be teachable, and someone who only wants compliments but no criticism isn’t teachable. And you’re not helping the writer grow if you only share the good news.

Be Clueless

I had one situation where an author approached me to review their book (I also have a book review blog. It helps me stay up-to-date with trends in Christian fiction). The story showed potential, but the editing was beyond awful—to the point where the novel was actually difficult to read.

I went back to the author and said they appeared to have sent me the unedited version, not the final version. I’d be happy to review the final version, but this version had too many errors for me to read and review fairly, because I’d have to mention the errors in my review.

I’m a freelance editor. It’s going to reflect badly on my editing skills if I give a stellar review to a book with obvious plot, character, or editing issues. Anyway, I never heard back from the author. I can only guess this was the final published version (edited or not). I suppose I could have offered the author my editing services, but I don’t want to give the impression I review books as a way of soliciting editing work. Because I don’t. (But if you want to hire me, email me via the About page.)

Be Complimentary and Critical

One piece of advice I often see is to use the compliment sandwich when giving feedback:

  • Say something nice
  • Give feedback on something that can be improved
  • Say something else nice

I’ve heard this is the approach used by Toastmasters: when giving feedback, members have to find two things the speaker has done well for every suggestion for improvement. Employee performance reviews often take this approach.

I’ve found two potential issues with this approach:
  1. The person may hear (or read) the compliment at the beginning of the feedback and the compliment at the end, but discard the critical feedback in the middle of the sandwich. That pretty much misses the point of giving feedback.
  2. The compliment can come across as patronising: if I say you know how to write a grammatically correct sentence, you’re likely to think that’s a compliment for the sake of giving a compliment. After all, can’t everyone write a grammatically correct sentence? Actually, no. At least, not based on some of the books I’ve read.
As a result, I don’t use the compliment sandwich.

As a freelance editor, clients are paying me to help them improve their manuscripts. It’s not good use of my time or my clients’ money for me to spend twice as much time telling them what they’re doing well as I spend telling them what needs to improve.

But that’s not to say you shouldn’t use the compliment sandwich in beta reading. It might be the best approach for you, depending on your relationship with the author in question.

Be Critical

You might think this is easy for me to say. After all, I’m an editor. People are paying me to make their writing better—to criticise. And I’m a reviewer. Publishers offer me ebooks so I can provide an honest review.

But it’s not that easy.

I’m told some freelance editors hesitate to criticise, hesitate to “bite the hand that feeds them.” (I missed that memo.)

I also know from experience that when some authors say “honest review”, they mean “complimentary review”. I’ve seen authors ask for honest reviews, checked out the Kindle sample, and realised the last thing they want is an honest review*. Sure, they need one. But they don’t want one.

*For example, the “authors” who can’t write a grammatically correct sentence.

But this is where we get to the nuts and bolts of the question: how do you give critical feedback on a beta read?

This partly depends on how the author sees a beta read.

Some authors use beta readers as first readers, to identify and iron out developmental issues such as plot and characterisation issues. Other authors use beta readers after the book has been edited, to act as unpaid proofreaders, or first reviewers.

Neither approach is wrong—or right.

But it might help to know which approach the author has taken before offering feedback. If the author is using beta readers to test an early version of the manuscript, then my view is that any and all feedback should be welcome. But the feedback should focus on the big picture:

  • Is there a clear story question?
  • Is there a clear three-act (or four-act, or six-stage) structure?
  • Is there a clear character arc, including character goals, motivation, and conflict?
  • Does the novel meet genre expectations?
  • Does the author use point of view correctly?
  • Does the author show rather than telling?
  • Are there any recurring writing issues the author should be aware of?

For example, provide a manuscript assessment service (a form of paid beta read). I often receive manuscripts where the writing is solid, but the main character has no clear goal, there is no clear structure, there is a lot of repetition, and the author consistently gets the punctuation of dialogue wrong.

But it’s not all bad: this is all fixable. I can see the potential for a plot, a structure, and a clear character GMC, but they are hidden behind excessive repetition.

If the book you’ve beta read is an early version, then the author should be expecting feedback on these basic issues. As a reader, you should expect the writing to need work—it hasn’t been line edited or copyedited, so it will need work.

But what if you’re not the first reader? What if you know the book has already been edited, and it’s still not stellar?

This is where giving feedback gets difficult.

Is the fault with the writing or with the editing?

If you’re beta reading an edited book, you have to ask: is the problem with the writing or with the editing? Or both?

It could be that the author didn’t know what kind of editing the novel needed, so hired the wrong kind of editor. It could be that the author hired the cheapest editor (who proofread when the novel needed a line editor).

Or it could be that the author hired an excellent editor, then ignored the editor’s feedback. I’ve had this happen. I’ve copyedited or proofread books where I’ve given the author advice on how to improve the book, and they’ve chosen to ignore me.

If an author is self-publishing, the editing is the author’s responsibility. They write the book. They select the editor. They choose whether to accept or reject the editor’s advice.

(Traditional publishing is another matter. The author is under contract, and the publisher won’t publish a novel that doesn’t meet their standards. That might mean the author has to allow changes they don’t agree with.)

So it’s important to know whether you’re a first reader or a last reader before you give feedback, so you can concentrate on the right things.

Giving Feedback

Here are my tips for giving feedback:

State Your Assumptions

If you’re assuming the manuscript hasn’t been edited, say so. It’s kinder than saying it hasn’t been edited well (even if that’s what you think). Then cite specific examples and sources of areas that need editing, so the author knows this isn’t you being mean. It’s you sharing knowledge.

Be Clear

Giving feedback is not a time for obfuscation or eregious advice. Say what you mean, and say it clearly.

Cite Sources

If you’re giving feedback on a technical craft issue (e.g. plot, structure, characterisation, or point of view), then cite the source of your advice. Where possible, quote from a relevant craft book from a recognised author or publisher (e.g. James Scott Bell or Writer’s Digest) rather than random blog posts or Pinterest pins (which might be wrong … like that “101 alternatives to ‘said'” pin).

Cite Examples

If there were parts of the manuscript which puzzled you e.g you couldn’t tell which character was speaking, or you didn’t understand something, then cite the exact example. It doesn’t help the author if you say you didn’t understand some things. It does help if you quote specific sentences and say what you didn’t understand.

Focus on the Writing

Critiquing a manuscript is just that. Critiquing a manuscript. Critique the writing, but do not critique the writer (which is one of the reasons I don’t edit non-fiction—it’s a lot easier to stick to critiquing the writing in fiction!

Finally …

Finally (or first), remind the author that all professional writers go through an extensive revision and editing process. It’s only the amateur who thinks a novel can be written in two weeks, and published the next. Seeking feedback from trusted advisors is an important and necessary part of being a professional writer.

The author friend who asked you to beta read is already several steps ahead of the pack. They’ve completed a manuscript. They’ve asked for feedback. Now they need to assess that feedback (from you, and from others), and incorporate the best feedback into their manuscript.

I hope that helps! What questions or suggestions do you have about beta-reading?

Common Author Questions about Reviewing

Reviewing 101 | Common Author Questions about Reviewing

Today I’m answering three questions I often get asked in relation to reviewing:

  • Should I recommend books I haven’t read?
  • Can I copy my reviews?
  • What can I do if my reviews are deleted?

Should I Recommend Books I Haven’t Read?

Can you review books you haven’t read on Amazon?

Yes—just look at all the people who’ve reviewed Three Wolf Moon T-Shirts or Bic For Her ballpoint pens (I only wish I was joking). I’m sure they haven’t all bought the shirt or used the pen. And that’s okay. Amazon doesn’t require people to have experienced a product or read a book in order to review.

But should you review a book you haven’t read? I think that depends. If you started the book and didn’t finish it for valid reasons (e.g. the “Christian” novel has a sex scene in the first chapter), then it might be good to write a review explaining why you didn’t finish the book so other people don’t have the same problem.

But if you’re wanting to use Amazon’s book review space to vent about the latest Clinton or Trump biography or memoir, then you might consider venting on a blog post instead. Or going to the gym and venting in a boxing class. It’s healthier, and your words won’t come back to bite you.

Should you recommend books you haven’t read to your readers?

Many authors use their newsletters to recommend books by other authors. These are often part of a “newsletter swap”, a marketing technique used by many authors to grow their mailing list. They dont’ actually swap email lists (that would be illegal). Instead, they cross-promote their books: Author A recommends This Book by Author B in his newsletter, and Author B recommends That Book by Author A in her newsletter.

I’ve come across situations where an author I know of recommends an author whose work I’ve read and consider sub-par. I’m left wondering if the author didn’t read it, or (worse) if they did read it and didn’t notice the issues. If so, what does that say about their writing? I’m also left wondering about the quality of the books by the authors I don’t know of. Are they as bad?

Personally, I’d rarely recommend a book I haven’t read. If I did, I’d say why I haven’t read it, and why I still think it’s worth checking out. However, I know not all authors hold this view. They say they can’t possibly read all the books. I agree that we can’t read all the books … but surely we can at least crack open the Kindle sample of books we’re effectively advertising to our readers?

Yes, you can review and recommend books you haven’t read. But should you?

Can I Copy My Reviews?

Yes. When you post a review online, you give that website (e.g. Amazon) a non-exclusive licence to use your review, but you retain the copyright to the review. Here’s the exact wording from Amazon:

If you do post content or submit material, and unless we indicate otherwise, you grant Amazon a nonexclusive, royalty-free, perpetual, irrevocable, and fully sublicensable right to use, reproduce, modify, adapt, publish, translate, create derivative works from, distribute, and display such content throughout the world in any media. You grant Amazon and sublicensees the right to use the name that you submit in connection with such content, if they choose.

This legalese essentially confirms that you retain copyright to your reviews, but give Amazon permission to use your reviews, for example, to cross-post a review from Amazon US to international Amazon sites, which have fewer reviews. This can lead to the situation where my review is featured twice on an Amazon UK book page.

You can also post your review on as many other websites as you like, as long as their terms are similar to Amazon’s. You shouldn’t post reviews to any website that claims ownership of your copyright.

Some people read these Conditions of Use as meaning Amazon owns the copyright on your review:

Copyright
All content included in or made available through any Amazon Service, such as text, graphics, logos, button icons, images, audio clips, digital downloads, and data compilations is the property of Amazon or its content suppliers and protected by United States and international copyright laws.

This is incorrect. The statement must be read in full: “Amazon or its content suppliers”. By writing a review on Amazon, you become a content supplier in the same way as an author or publisher is a content supplier (if this wasn’t the case, no one would sell books though Amazon. No publisher is going to allow a retailer to claim copyright).

But I didn’t mean reviews I wrote. I meant reviews on my book.

This is often what authors mean when they ask if they can copy ‘their’ reviews. The answer is straightforward:

No.

You can’t copy reviews of your book, because they are not ‘your’ reviews. They belong to the reviewer. They are the intellectual property of the reviewer, in the same way as your book is your intellectual property.

You might argue that their review is only 300 words, while your book is 80,000 words, and surely it’s okay to copy 300 words?

No.

What’s important isn’t how many words are copied, but what proportion those words comprise of the full work. Copying a 300-word review is copying 100% of the entire work. The reviewer quoting 300 words out of your 80,000-word novel is 0.4% of the entire work—which is allowable under the doctrine of Fair Use.

You can’t copy a review in its entirety without the permission of the reviewer. Ever. You can’t copy a critical review to your blog and refute it point-by-point. In doing this, not only have you breached the reviewer’s copyright, you have made yourself look petty. Yes, I’ve seen that blog post.

You can’t copy passages from the review without permission or attribution. Ever. Not to use the review to brag on your Facebook page, and certainly not to criticise the reviewer in your next edition of the book.

So what can I do?

What you can do is name the reviewer, copy the first line or two of the review, then link back to the full review on the reviewer’s own website, or on Amazon. As a reviewer, I’d like you to link to my blog site to improve my traffic and possibly get another subscriber. As an author, you might be better linking to Amazon, so if the reader is impressed they can purchase your book immediately. For example:

“Falling for the Farmer is just perfect” – click here to read a new five-star review on Amazon!

Or go one better and create a meme you can share on social media.

Besides, linking looks more professional. It shows an unknown person wrote the glowing review, and that you haven’t just quoted your mother, sister or BFF (or made the review up yourself).

What can I do if my reviews are deleted?

Reviews can be deleted in two ways, by Amazon, or by the reviewer. Amazon can—and will—delete reviews which fall outside their reviewing guidelines in some way:

  • Paid reviews
  • Reviews written by someone with a financial interest in the book
  • ARC reviews where the free book has not been disclosed
  • Reviews where the author has gifted the book to the reviewer and this hasn’t been disclosed.

A review may also be deleted if it includes specific words (e.g. ‘nazi’) which Amazon does not permit to be used on the site. This might be difficult to avoid if you were reviewing a book about, say, politics in Germany in the 1930’s. In some cases these reviews will be deleted automatically, in others they will be deleted if enough customers Report Abuse on the review.

Amazon will edit but not delete reviews where the review links to an external website, or where the reviewer has linked to their own book (which is seen as promotional, and therefore against the Reviewing Guidelines).

Review deleted without reason

If you believe a review has been deleted without reason, you can contact Amazon and ask them to review their decision. This usually results in a standard email saying the review was deleted because it was against the Amazon Community Guidelines. No, they don’t tell you which guideline.

The other way reviews can get deleted is if the reviewer deletes them (e.g. because they are closing their Amazon account).

I didn’t mean reviews I wrote. I meant reviews on my book.

There’s nothing you can do about reviews written by other people. They are not your reviews, so you can’t ask Amazon why they have been deleted. If you remember the reviewer name and have their contact details (e.g. if it’s a review you solicited), you could ask the reviewer to ask Amazon, but they’ll probably just get the standard email (and may be threatened with having their review privileges revoked if they keep asking).

You can take some proactive steps to ensure reviews of your book aren’t removed by Amazon:

  • Don’t review your own book
  • Don’t ask/allow family members to review your book
  • Don’t ask/allow editors or your publisher to review your book
  • Don’t gift your book to potential reviewers through Amazon (this proves to Amazon that you have a relationship, which Amazon might interpret as you being friends). Post them a hard copy, or email the pdf or mobi file.
  • If you do give a copy to a reviewer, ask that they include an appropriate disclosure statement (e.g. “Thanks to the author for providing a free copy of this book for review purposes”).
  • Ensure reviewers don’t use their review of your book as a platform for promoting their own book, either in their reviewer name, through links, or by mentioning their own book in the review.

Finally, ensure reviewers don’t say they received a free copy of the book “in exchange” for a review. That’s against the Amazon Community Guidelines, and will trigger a deletion (and reviewers can no longer edit and repost reviews of the same book or product).

What is the most useful thing you’ve learned from this series? Is there anything else you’d like to know about reviews and online reviewing?