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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.

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?

Reviewing 101: Reviewing, Endorsing, & Influencing: Understanding the Difference

Reviewing 101: Reviewing, Endorsing, & Influencing: Understanding the Difference

Book reviews are for readers. But not all reviews are written with the reader in mind. So when is a book review not a book review? When is it an endorsement? And when is it influencing?

First, let’s define reviewing, endorsing, & influencing.

For our purposes, a book review is just that—a review of a book. It’s usually published, whether in a dead tree newspaper or magazine, or online. Online reviews might be published on a website, a blog, a retail site (e.g. Amazon or Barnes & Noble), a booklover site (e.g. Goodreads or Litsy), or on social media (e.g. Facebook or Instagram). It might be published on one, then promoted on social media. There might be a relationship between the reviewer and the author

An endorsement is usually a comment or review from someone who has a relationship with the author. They might be friends. They might be acquaintances. They might share a publisher or agent. The review might be a full review, or it might be a one-line pull quote that appears on the cover of a book.

Either way it is an endorsement, which is written for the author or publisher to promote the book. It’s not a real book review—because reviews are for readers.

Influencers may or may not have read and reviewed the book, but their primary role is to promote the book for the author.

Reviews are for Readers

Book reviews are written for readers. The purpose of a review is to help readers make good choices about what they read. After all, our time is precious, even more so than our money. I don’t want people to waste money—or time—on book they won’t enjoy, so I try to make clear in my reviews who will (or won’t) enjoy a book.

Authors shouldn’t be afraid of critical reviews. It’s better that a book has one well-written critical review that points out the intrusive omniscient viewpoint and overbearing Christian themes than dozens of reviews from bashers who feel they were tricked into reading Christian fiction when they were looking for a bad boy billionaire romance. (As an aside, if your book is Christian fiction, please categorise it as such to prevent these reviews.)

It’s worth remembering that a review can be positive without being five stars—the star rating is a subjective indication of how much the reviewer liked the book, not an objective rating of how good the book is. There are great works of literature I loathe (*cough* Vanity Fair *cough*). There are badly written novels I’ve enjoyed. Most people agree Twilight is badly written, but the series has done well.

Note also that star ratings vary across sites: “I liked it” is four stars on Amazon, but only three on Goodreads. An a low-star review can still give readers valuable information that might even convince them to buy the book (e.g. “there was no sex”). A review that convinces a reader this won’t be the right book for them is just as valuable as the review that sells a book.

But not all reviews are created equal.

When it comes to online reviews (at Amazon or other sites), it can be hard to know which reviews you can trust. The trick is knowing something about the reviewer’s history. On most sites you can click on the reviewers name and see their profile, which includes their reviews. Goodreads even shows the average rating for a reviewer. I’m looking for reviewers who:

  • Mostly review books (not household appliances or the free app of the day).
  • Review books by a range of authors. I don’t mind if they review in a specific genre (e.g. Christian fiction or cookbooks) as long as they don’t review only a single author.
  • Review the book rather than critiquing the author.
  • Tell me what they like and didn’t like about the book (and don’t just give a plot summary).
  • Review books from a range of publishers.
  • Review both self-published and traditionally published books.
  • Use a range of star ratings in their reviews. A reviewer who gives everything five stars (or one star) doesn’t tell me anything about their reading tastes and whether ‘m going to like the books they like.

I also ignore books that only have five-star reviews from new authors or authors I’m not familiar with. Even the classics have one-star reviews, so lots of five-star reviews is a red flag.

Influencer Reviews

The last few years have seen the rise of the online influencer (thanks, Khardashian family). Big-name influencers have huge followings and can command thousands for a single Tweet or Instagram post (to better understand influencing, click here to check out my review of Influence).

Book reviewers are not in the same league—few receive anything for their work beyond a free copy of the book (regular reviewers often receive free books as well). Some influencer reviews may actually be endorsements, as discussed above.

Street Teams

But I am seeing more and more authors proactively creating influencer teams to help promote their new release books. Sometimes these are called Street Teams or Launch Teams. Basically, a Street Team is a group of readers who are going to read the book and share it with others, promoting it on social media and telling their virtual and real life friends.

My personal standard for being an influencer is that I will only offer to influence if I’ve read and enjoyed the book—which tends to mean something I’ve edited or beta-read. I don’t want to promote a title I didn’t enjoy because that might reflect badly on me. I also review a lot and don’t have much space in my personal or social media schedule to influence. As a result, I’m selective about the titles I choose to influence for.

Being an influencer extends beyond reading and reviewing the book.

Influencing can include:

  • Cover reveal
  • Blog post
  • Social media posts

But the big problem for authors is getting people to join their street team … with a particular focus on people who aren’t already on 20+ other street teams. I can understand the problem—authors

My tips are:

Focus on reviewers who love and regularly promote books in your genre.

The chances are they’ll make more of an effort if your book is in their favourite genre. Even if they don’t, their blog is more likely to attract your target reader, which gives your book visibility with the right audience.

Focus on reviewers who are active on social media (e.g. Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, and Twitter).

Readers are unlikely to purchase your book the first time they see it. The more times they see your name and your book cover, the better.

Focus on less well-known reviewers.

They might not have the reach of the bigger reviewers and influencers, but that means they are likely to be pleased to have been chosen, and will have the time to put into promoting your book.

Focus on newer reviewers.

A new reviewer is less likely to be a member of multiple street teams, and will therefore be grateful for the opportunity and will work harder to promote your book than the reviewer who is on all the street teams.

What other hints (or questions) do you have about reviews?

Should Authors Review?

Should Authors Review? (An #AuthorToolBoxBlogHop Post)

This week I’m addressing a question many authors ask: should authors review? First, let’s back up to a more important question:

Should authors read?

Yes!

“If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.” (Stephen King, On Writing)

My personal view is that authors should read both inside and outside their genre. The odd writing craft book doesn’t hurt either!

  • Authors should read inside their genre to understand current trends in subject and voice.
  • Authors should read outside their genre to get ideas and inspiration for their own books.
  • Authors should read writing craft books, because we all need to be teachable.

But should authors review?

Yes.

Well-written reviews influence sales, so writing reviews blesses authors you enjoy reading, and influences others to try their work.

Do authors have to review?

No.

Reviewing a book is one way of blessing the author. But it’s not the only way. There are other ways, tangible and intangible. Pray for them. Buy their books. Recommend their books to friends. Comment on their blog posts. Follow their blog. Sign up for their email list. Like them on Facebook and Amazon. Follow and Fan them on Goodreads. Like their reviews on Goodreads. Tweet their new release. Tweet helpful reviews.

Should authors review everything they read?

No.

You don’t have to review everything you read, and you don’t have to publish your reviews on commercial sites. Most websites have a clear set of reviewing guidelines, and authors need to bear these in mind when deciding what to review—and what not to review. We discussed the Amazon Community Guidelines in this post.

I believe that as Christians, we absolutely need to adhere to the rules of each website. In fact, I believe we should hold ourselves to higher standards, not just to abstain from unethical behaviour, but to abstain from the appearance of unethical behaviour.

For example, I’m a book reviewer and a freelance editor. While I have an obligation to review books I obtain from book blogger programmes (e.g. NetGalley), I can’t review any book by clients on a commercial site such as Amazon.

So where can authors review?

Commercial sites

Commercial sites are any sites which sell books to readers. These include Amazon, Barnes & Noble, BookDespository, ChristianBook, and Koorong.

But just because you can review doesn’t mean you should. When reviewing on commerical sites (especially Amazon), ensure you only review within the sites reviewing guidelines. If you choose to review on Amazon, review a wide range of titles. Don’t only review books by friends or authors from your publisher, as that will look like a reviewing circle.

As a guide:

  • Don’t publish reviews which could be seen as promotional
  • Don’t denigrate books in the same category (books which could be seen as competing with yours).
  • Review under your author name, not a pseudonym
  • Don’t include the word ‘Author’ in your Amazon reviewer name
  • Don’t include ‘Author of …’ or refer to your own books in your reviews

Some authors do choose to review under a pseudonym (e.g. under their real name if they write under a pen name). If you do, you need to act as a regular customer, not an author. This means:

  • Review everything under the same pseudonym
  • If you copy reviews across sites (e.g. reviewing on Amazon and Goodreads), use the same pseudonym across all those sites (that’s good branding).
  • Never mention your own books in reviews or discussions
  • Never comment on reviews of your books. This catches a lot of authors out.
  • Always remain within the reviewing guidelines. Your real name might not be visible to customers, but the retailer has your real name and address. And someone with better Google-fu than you will work out your true identity.

Overall, I think it’s easier to use your own name.

Reader Sites

Reader sites don’t sell books directly (although they might link to retail sites, and they might earn an affiliate commission from those links). Reader sites include BookLikes, Goodreads (owned by Amazon), Library Thing, Litsy, and Riffle.

Reader sites are a more problematic than retail sites for author/reviewers. If you’ve been using a site like Goodreads for a while (months, if not years), and are a member of different discussion groups, then it might appear strange to change the way you use the site simply because you are now a published author. So continue using the site as you have done in the past.

If you are a published author and you’ve never used Goodreads, I suggest you set up an author page, perhaps link your blog, and then sign out. Do nothing. Observe for a period (perhaps months) before deciding if this is a community you want to be part of. Goodreads is a complex site with its own culture, and a lot of author-vs-reviewer angst could have been prevented if authors made the effort to get to know the site and its users before jumping in.

If you decide to participate in the Goodreads community, participate as a reader.

Don’t mention your books, or the fact you are an author. If people are interested, they will view your profile, see you are an author, and may be interested enough to try one of your books.

I think the major thing to know about Goodreads is that members use the rating system in a variety of ways. One star often means “I don’t want to read this book”. They might not like the cover. They might not like the blurb. They might object to the way the author behaves online. They might not like Christian fiction (in which case, it might be an example of Christian persecution, which calls to mind Paul’s pesky injunction from Romans 12:14, to bless those who persecute you).

I understand this behaviour annoys authors, who see it dragging down their average rating. But Goodreads is for readers.

Personal Website or Blog

This is your personal space, so review away. Host blog tours. Endorse. Influence. Interview authors. Guest post on other blogs. Gush about everyone and everything. Blog readers want to connect with the author, so give them the opportunity to connect with as many of your author friends as you want.

My only proviso with promoting other authors through your blog is that readers will judge your writing based on the writing of those authors you choose to endorse and influence. If you write Christian romance, you probably don’t want to be endorsing an author who specialises in erotica. If you review a book with obvious writing or editing issues and don’t mention them in your review, I’m going to think you didn’t notice them—which makes me wonder about the quality of your own writing.

Should Authors Review?

I hope I’ve convinced you that authors should review. Do you review everything, or do you only review titles you can recommend and endorse? This is something you will ultimately have to decide for yourself, but I hope I’ve given you some food for thought.

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:
Promotional Content

Reviewing 101: Understanding Promotional Content on Amazon

Last week I introduced the Amazon Community Guidelines and the concept of promotional content. Amazon give examples of what isn’t permitted on their About Customer Reviews page. This week we are going to go through those examples:

A product manufacturer posts a review of their own product, posting as an unbiased shopper.

Amazon doesn’t permit reviews of any product you have a financial interest in, which includes books you’ve written, edited or published. Not under your own name, and especially not under a fake name.

A shopper, unhappy with her purchase, posts multiple negative reviews for the same product

Amazon only allows reviewers to review each product once (so you can’t review the hardcover and the Kindle edition of the same book), so anyone posting multiple reviews must be using multiple accounts or circumventing the system in some other way. It is possible. It isn’t permitted.

A customer posts a review in exchange for $5

This specifically refers to reviews from ffiver.com, but $1 or $1000, the amount of the payment isn’t the point. Amazon do not permit paid reviews in the Customer Reviews section, as customers expect these reviews to be from impartial customers.

Amazon expand on this on their About Promotional Content page to veto reviews in exchange for:

  • Cash
  • Free or discounted product
  • A gift certificate
  • Discount off a future purchase
  • Entry into a contest or sweepstake
  • Entry into a membership programme

Why are contest entries not allowed? Because they can be valuable. Karen Kingsbury once offered a free cruise-for-two to the reader whose review most “touches her heart”. As one reviewer commented, that was never going to be a one-star review, was it?

Posted by Karen Kingsbury on Wednesday, 1 February 2012

Note that if you have paid for a review (e.g. from Kirkus Indie), you can quote it in the Editorial Reviews section of the book page.

A customer posts a review of a game, in exchange for bonus in-game credits

In-game credits have a financial value, so this concept is a variation on a paid review. When Amazon found a puzzle company were sending Amazon gift vouchers to people who had reviewed their games on Amazon, they deleted all reviews for the games in question, and also deleted the entire reviewing history of some reviewers.

Amazon saw the gift cards as compensation. Amazon’s Selling Policies clearly state that sellers cannot offer a refund in exchange for a review:

“you may not provide compensation for a review other than a free copy of the product. If you offer a free product, it must be clear that you are soliciting an unbiased review. The free product must be provided in advance; no refunds are permitted after the review is written. Product review solicitations that ask for only positive reviews or that offer compensation are prohibited. You may not ask buyers to remove negative reviews.”

A family member of the product creator posts a five-star customer review to help boost sales

Amazon prohibits reviews from people with a financial interest in the product, which would include family members like a spouse or dependent children.

The key phrase is: “to boost sales”. If your friend or family member is reviewing as a way of encouraging you, they should have no problem acknowledging the relationship in the review.

This is one instance where I make an exception to my “Authors should never comment on reviews” rule. If Mum, sister or favourite cousin has written a glowing review and you can’t get them to delete it, add a comment to the review acknowledging the relationship and thanking them for their wonderful, albeit biased, review.

A shopper posts a review of the product, after being promised a refund in exchange

This is another variation on a paid review, and is also against the Selling Policies. If Amazon find a reviewer receiving a ‘gift’ from an author (e.g. a 99 cent gift card) after the reviewer has reviewed a book by that author (such as a 99 cent Kindle book), they can and will delete the review.

I’ve seen it “recommended” that authors “thank” their reviewers by gifting a $1.00 gift card for a 99 cent book. This is a deliberate effort to circumvent the Amazon guidelines, and I have trouble believing that suggestion came from a Christian. But it did.

Amazon frowns on gifting Kindle copies of books to reviewers, as the reviewer can then either on-gift the gift or refuse the gift and use the credit towards any other Amazon purchase. You are better to either send the reviewer a copy of the book directly (as a mobi, prc or pdf file), or gift a copy through BookFunnel or Smashwords.

A seller posts negative reviews on his competitor’s product

This concerns authors, as it gives rise to the myth that authors shouldn’t review (which we’ll discuss next week). Authors can review, but should be extremely careful about posting critical reviews of books in the same genre, as such reviews can be seen to fall foul of this guideline. For this reason, many authors chose not to review in the genre in which they write, or to only write positive (four-star or five-star) reviews.

An artist posts a positive review on a peer’s album in exchange for receiving a positive review from them

I have seen review swaps offered on Facebook and Goodreads. Authors mean well, but review swaps are explicitly prohibited by Amazon, and are frowned upon by readers—because we don’t trust the reviews. Think about it:

We agree to swap books and honestly review each other’s books. I read yours and hate it. It’s not just that the main character is too stupid to live, it’s that it’s supposed to be a romance but they don’t meet until Chapter 38, and it’s full of spelling mistakes (the heroin lives in Sidney, New South Whales, and wheres a high-wasted dress). Do I:

a) review honestly, knowing the other author is going to be reviewing my book and might take this as an excuse to drag me and my book through the mud; or
b) lie.

That’s not a decision you want to make. So stay away from review swaps and reviewing circles (where several authors agree to review each other’s books).

This doesn’t stop authors supporting fellow authors in other ways.

Authors endorse books all the time. They post reviews and recommendations of author friend’s books on their blogs. Great. But these are endorsements, and are better placed in the Editorial Reviews section of the Amazon page.

To summarise, please don’t try and come up with a creative way to get around the rules. It’s not ethical. It’s not honest. At the most basic level, if you are trying to use Amazon reviews to promote your book, it’s likely you are going to fall foul of Amazon’s Community Guidelines or Selling Policies, which could get you banned from Amazon as a customer and as a seller. It’s not worth it.

Understanding Amazon Community Guidelines

Reviewing 101: Understanding Amazon Community Guidelines

There is a lot of confusion regarding what is permitted in terms of online reviewing. This isn’t helped by the fact that each site has their own rules, and some enforce them more than others. Today I’m going to take you through the Amazon Community Guidelines, which cover writing reviews. I’ve chosen Amazon because for several reasons:

  • Amazon is the biggest online retail site.
  • Amazon is the site authors most want (and need reviews on).
  • Amazon has the most reviewers (over 20 million).
  • Amazon has the most product reviews.
  • It’s also the site I know best.

Amazon has clear reviewing guidelines and will take action to remove reviews that contravene the guidelines. Amazon gets a lot of attention regarding “fake” reviews (which exist in greater numbers than most people realise) and “bully” reviewers (who are far less common than the media implies).

Amazon’s focus used to be on what was not allowed, including:

  • Objectionable material
  • Inappropriate content
  • Off-topic information
  • Promotional material.

Amazon have now rephrased their rules to focus on the positive. The Amazon Community Guidelines say:

Eligibility

Only customers can review. An Amazon.com customer is (currently) defined as someone who has spent $50 on Amazon.com in the last year. Other Amazon sites have similar spending requirements. This isn’t to deter honest reviewers, but to make it harder for fake reviewers to set up multiple reviewing accounts.

Be Helpful and Relevant

That should be obvious! It means reviewers should focus their reviews on the product. Information on price, packaging, shipping or the seller aren’t considered relevant to customer reviews, as Amazon has other forums for offering feedback on sellers or packaging.

Amazon Community Guidelines don’t permit links to external websites (including your own). Amazon won’t delete a review with external links, but it will delete the link and replace it with […].

Respect Others

Amazon do not permit swearing, calling people names, using inappropriate language (like calling someone an idiot or a nazi), or promotion of illegal conduct.

Customers are also not permitted to post from multiple accounts, or to coordinate with others. This means sellers (including authors) can’t ask their fans to upvote or downvote specific reviews, or report them for abuse in an effort to get the review deleted.

Customers can disagree with others as long as it’s done respectfully, without name-calling, without attacking the other person, and without posting content that invades someone’s privacy.

Promotional and Commercial Solicitations

Customer reviews are meant to be just that: customer reviews. They are not meant to be a way for sellers (including authors) to promote their products. Amazon will therefore delete reviews they consider promotional.

This specifically includes posting content (i.e. reviewing) your own products (books), or those of a close family member, friend, or business associate. There is ongoing debate as to how Amazon decides a reviewer is “close” to a seller, but here are my views:

  • Reviewer and author use the same IP address.
  • Author has gifted the book to the reviewer via Amazon.
  • Author quotes the reviewer in Editorial Reviews.
  • Author thanks the reviewer in the Acknowledgements to their book.
  • Author identifies the reviewer as their editor, cover designer, or other business associate.

Amazon say they do not track users social media connections (e.g. Facebook friends), but Amazon owns Goodreads which does allow linking to your Facebook account.

Amazon also does not allow:

  • Reviews of competitor’s books (although “competitor is not defined. Does this mean authors can’t review? We’ll discuss that in a future post).
  • Reviews in exchange for compensation of any kind (i.e. paid reviews).

Authors may provide reviewers with a free copy of the book (paperback or ebook), but the book must be freely given without any expectation of a review. This isn’t actually a bad thing: if you offer a reviewer a book and they don’t review it, it’s probably because they either haven’t read it or didn’t like it.

If you find reviews which include inappropriate information (e.g. saying the book is too expensive, or saying it arrived damaged), you can Report Abuse.

What is Report Abuse?

If you look at the bottom of any Amazon review (except one you’ve written), you will see three options: Helpful, Comment, and Report Abuse. If you believe a review contravenes the Amazon Community Guidelines in some way, click Report Abuse. You used to be able to give a reason, but Amazon now currently doesn’t give this option.

If you are given the option to say why the review is inappropriate. It’s best if you mention a specific reason that is against the guidelines (e.g. the review is self-promotion, the review is written by the author/editor, the review is about price or delivery and not about the product, the review includes spiteful remarks about the author).

This feature can be used by anyone, author or reader. If, as an author, you believe the review is against the Amazon Community Guidelines or Conditions of Use (often referred to as the Terms of Service, or TOS), this is the responsible and ethical way to report it, rather than leaving a comment on the review. Note that Amazon do not remove reviews simply because they are critical—they must contravene Community Guidelines.

It usually takes several reports from different people before a review is removed (although I don’t know exactly how many). However, sometimes the response is extremely fast: I once reported a review for soliciting helpful votes (which is against the guidelines), and the review had been edited by Amazon within half an hour to remove the promotional content.

Of course, the big question is: What is promotional content?

We will look at that in more detail next week.

Meanwhile, are you aware of the Amazon Community Guidelines? What do you consider promotional content?

Book Reviewing 101 | How to Ask Bloggers for Book Reviews

Book Reviewing 101 | How to Ask Bloggers for Book Reviews

My previous post discussed how to get honest book reviews (answer: Ask). This week I’m looking at some of the finer points of how to approach potential book reviewers, especially bloggers.

First, and most important …

Don’t ask them to review something completely inappropriate

Please don’t waste the reviewer’s time by asking them to review something completely inappropriate.

If their Amazon profile says they don’t accept book review requests, don’t ask. If their blog page says no vanity publishers and your publisher is Tate or WestBow Press, don’t ask.

And only pitch your book to a reviewer who reviews in the same genre: as a reviewer of Christian fiction, I’m definitely not interested in your polytheistic inspirational, or your raunchy erotica (yes, I’ve been offered both). I’m not interested in your non-fiction, and probably not interested in your picture book.

Follow their review policy

As a general guide, it’s best to send a query first and follow that up with the ebook if the reviewer agrees to review your title. Don’t just send your book and then complain the reviewer never reviewed it. An unsolicited book is like the flyers in your letterbox from the supermarket you never visit: it gets deleted, unread.

I’ve come across authors who say it’s too much trouble to read every book blogger’s review policy and follow it. They’re too busy, and it’s much easier to send a template email. That’s their right. But I’m also busy, and it’s much easier to say no to those requests than to follow up with a request for the information they’d have sent if they’d done a little research.

And on a related note …

Follow the law

Don’t add the blogger to an email list without their consent.

Really.

Don’t.

If you’re stupid enough to do that (or stupid enough to hire a PR company that does), please don’t add to the stupid by having an “unsubscribe” option that requires the blogger to add five different personal details in order to unsubscribe from a mailing list they (I) never signed up for in the first place.

(Yes, I had this happen last week. Twice. It won’t happen again, because I blocked the email address and reported it as spam. No, I didn’t unsubscribe. I’m not giving them unnecessary personal details.)

Offer a free copy of the book

… and state whether your version is mobi (for Kindle), epub (for Kobo, Nook, Sony etc), or pdf (which can be read on any device, although Kindle users are advised to email the file to their Kindle with “convert” in the subject line, to get a readable mobi file).

Ask for an honest review

Remember you are asking for an honest book review, not a positive review (and certainly not a five-star review). And don’t require a review “in exchange” for the free book—all those things are against Amazon’s reviewing guidelines (which I’ll discuss in a later post).

Email the book

Don’t gift your book via Amazon in order to get the Amazon Verified Purchase tag—Amazon may see the gift as financial compensation, and may delete the review (because the reviewer can decline the gift and spend the money on something else). Yes, an Amazon rep might have told you it’s okay to gift a review copy. But ask another rep, and you’ll get a different answer. Don’t risk it.

You can gift copies via retailers like Smashwords (if your book is available there) or use services like BookFunnel, which allows the reviewer to download in their choice of formats. Or just email the mobi or pdf file. Trustworthy bloggers won’t pirate your book (and you’re checking out the bloggers to avoid the dodgy ones, aren’t you?)

What if no one agrees to review my book?

If you find you’re asking a lot of bloggers for reviews but no one is interested, here are a few things to check:

  • Are you targeting the right reviewers? Have they reviewed books like yours before?
  • Do you have a great cover? Does it look professional?
  • Is your book description gripping?
  • Do your opening pages have a compelling hook?
  • Has your book been professionally edited?
  • Is there something about your presentation which is driving potential reviewers away?

These are the main issues that lead to me turning down review requests. Most often, the opening pages of the novel simply don’t grip me. They might be all telling, not showing. They might use too many creative dialogue tags. They might be writing in omniscient point of view and headhopping. These issues show me the book needs more work, and will mean I choose not to review it. Other reviewers will have their own criteria.

If you can’t convince reviewers to read your book, you’re going to have trouble convincing paying customers.

I sent my book, but it hasn’t been reviewed yet.

Some book reviewers agree to review your book, while others only promise to look at it. If they decide not to review it, don’t push. The chances are they didn’t like the book.

If a reviewer agreed to review your book within a specific timeframe and doesn’t, it could be because they’ve forgotten (so one gentle reminder may well be appropriate). However, it could be they didn’t like it. Some reviewers prefer to only review books they like, so don’t push the issue if they don’t review it.

It’s a lot of work!

Yes, which is why it is important to keep track of everything:

  • The reviewers you found who accept review requests (whether you contacted them or not).
  • The reviewers you contacted who didn’t respond to your email.
  • The reviewers you contacted who responded but declined.
  • The reviewers you contacted who said no, but to keep them informed of future books.
  • The reviewers who agreed to review your books and didn’t.
  • The reviewers who agreed to review your books and did.

When a review you’ve requested appears on a blog, it’s polite to visit the blog, thank the reviewer, and respond to any comments. However, I don’t recommend responding to book reviews (positive or negative) on retail sites (e.g. Amazon) or reader communities (e.g. Goodreads), as it can come across as needy and stalkerish.

However, you can like book reviews on BookBub—it’s a newer site which is actively trying to encourage readers to review (to take over from Amazon, perhaps?). Bookbub email authors to tell them when a reviewer has recommended their book, which means you don’t have to stalk the site.

(Authors should be writing their next book, not stalking social media to search for reviews).

Finally, keep special note of those reviewers who enjoyed your book: these are the people you will contact again when your next book releases, which will make this process much easier.

Do you have any reviewing questions I haven’t answered?