Goodreads Ratings and the Curse of the One-Star Review

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For those returning visitors who may be finding yourselves a bit disoriented, welcome to the new Inkless, fresh from a facelift and chemical peel.  Feel free to poke around and explore!

Book reviews.  Authors love to have them.  Perspective buyers love to peruse them.  Readers can sometimes be successfully cajoled into leaving them if there is some kind of valuable bribe involved.  Those five little stars are so critically important to making sales and hitting goals that authors will bludgeon all their friends, acquaintances, Twitter followers, and blog browsers into leaving just a few kind words and a rating that might push them an inch or two higher up the best-sellers list.  We agonize over every criticism and nod our heads in agreement at every minor piece of praise, soaking up admiration like particularly snooty sponges each time a reader sees it our way.

A good review is one of the best things that can happen to a writer whose self-esteem hangs by a thread, and getting panned can sting so badly that it wipes out weeks of potential productivity as wounds are nursed and fragile egos rebuilt with the aid of cookies, kitty cuddles, and hard drugs.

But what’s worse than a bad review from a reader who didn’t like a character or felt cheated by an ending?  An unintentionally bad review, left completely by accident, that is still displayed prominently and drags down a book’s average rating.

Anyone who has browsed Goodreads has probably come across this painful phenomenon.  Books that haven’t been released yet have user ratings down in the two-and-a-halfs, or novels that have received nearly universal acclaim still have a smattering of one-star reviews next to random readers’ names.  These one-star users never leave a comment explaining their decision.  They may give four and five stars to everything else on their book list.  They appear callous, heartless, and careless: the enemy of all that is good about exchanging opinions with fellow readers; the bane of authors everywhere.

Why do they do this?  Because, most of the time, they have absolutely no idea that they are causing the author so much unwarranted angst.

In my experience, one-star reviews on Goodreads are nearly always the product of mistaken identity.  The user hasn’t the faintest recollection of having rated the book.

Before Dark the Night Descending was available for purchase, I had at least three one-star reviews on my record, and the first impression was terrible.  I was tearing my hair out.  How could anyone hate something so much when they hadn’t even read it?  No one was going to take a chance on the first book of a new, self-published series if it was already being condemned by the all-important stars.  It wasn’t fair, and it spurred me to action.

I messaged each of the users.   “It was just a stray click.  I was trying to add it to my reading list,” one said. “I had no idea – I’m so sorry,” said the others.  They were looking for an excerpt, or trying to click away, or perform some other harmless action that tripped them up.  All of the users involved retracted their reviews immediately and promised they would review my book again after they had actually read it.  Everyone was very nice, and I thanked them all profusely, but the experience wasn’t just embarrassing for both sides of the equation.  It should be totally unnecessary.

Readers trust Goodreads for advice from their peers about what to pick up during their next trip to the bookstore, and authors count on Goodreads for the publicity that keeps everyone in business.  So why is it so easy for readers to accidently mislead their fellows, hurting authors and the reputation of Goodreads in the process?  Why do we have to experience so much grief over something that seems so easy to fix?

One solution would be to require, as Amazon does, a minimum amount of text before posting a review.  But I can see why Goodreads wouldn’t want to change their dual-review system quite that much.  I like the fact that you can just leave a star without thinking of some pithy comment to put with it.  Leaving a star is easy, and encourages readers to rate more books more quickly, which is generally a good thing.

Another solution would be to ask a reader, “Are you sure you meant to leave one star?” before allowing them to submit the entry.  I suppose that might run the risk of artificially inflating the rankings of books that really are total stinkers – a snap review is often a more honest one, and I think that usually works in everyone’s favor.  You don’t want someone second-guessing themselves if they actually did hate something.

So here’s my answer: just make the reader aware of what they did.  Add a little pop-up to the review process that says, “You just gave a one-star rating to Dark the Night Descending.”  If they meant to do it, they’ll ignore the prompt.  If they didn’t mean it, maybe they’ll go back and change their mistake.  Everyone wins.  Authors won’t suffer, readers won’t be unduly inconvenienced, and the integrity of the Goodreads empire will remain whole.

Readers, does that sound fair?  Authors, wouldn’t you like to see a little more quality control?  Let’s make sure that what we’re doing matters, and that our opinions are properly counted.  That seems like a five-star idea to me.

Book News and Other Upcoming Developments

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Hello, everyone!  I don’t know about you, but I’m finally ready to leave this cold, miserable winter behind in favor of budding trees, daffodils, warm sunshine, and a little taste of what’s coming your way this summer.

As you all know, I’ve been plugging away at Dark the Dreamer’s Shadow, the second book recounting the adventures of Arran Swinn, and I’m happy to say that it’s close to being in good shape for publication.

General release will likely happen at some point during the early summer, possibly in June (if I can get my act together).  The grand cover reveal and teaser excerpts are on their way, of course.  I may also be in the market for a beta reader or two, and I suspect my volunteers already know who they are.

In addition, I will be making my very first convention appearance at the end of July.  The ninth annual Pi-Con will be taking place in Connecticut from July 31 to August 2, during which time I will be participating in a writer’s workshop, contributing to some panel discussions on writing and fantasy, and doing a reading from Dark the Night Descending (probably), signed copies of which will no doubt be available for purchase.

I’m pretty excited to be taking part in the program, and I hope some of you Northeasterners will try to join me for moral support.  It’s not a huge convention, but it seems like a great place to get my feet wet and meet some cool, local-ish nerd fans.

So please wish me luck as I work to stamp out all those nasty typos that seem to breed in every work-in-progress.  I’m very pleased with the book so far, and I know you guys will be, too.  Stay tuned for more updates!

Get a Kindle Copy of Dark the Night Descending Free!

Surprise!  For the next three days, April 8 to 10, you can pick up a Kindle copy of Dark the Night Descending for free.

Click here to order from Amazon!

Click here to download for Kindle!

That’s right!  If you live in the Northeast, you’re going to need something to keep you company during our latest little snowstorm.  If you live anywhere else…just keep it to yourself, okay?  Our soon-to-be-frozen crocuses and daffodils will thank you for it.

No matter where you call home, a good book should always be on the radar, so head on over to Amazon and see if mine takes your fancy.

For those of you who have already taken the plunge, now would be the perfect time to leave a review and use the mighty influence of your opinion to help other readers make the right life choices.

Please feel free to spread the word and share with your friends, too!

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Dark the Night Descending

Arran Swinn knows a thing or two about nightmares. After all, they killed his father. When the sun goes down, the Siheldi come out, and surviving the onslaught until daybreak can be little more than a gamble without the right protection.

Thanks to a dash of luck, a little daring, and an heirloom from his father, Arran can provide protection these days – for the right fee. Guiding seagoing merchants along the haunted trade routes is easy money…right up until he takes on a secretive passenger who proves to be almost as bad as the Siheldi themselves.

With the daylight fading and the ocean rising, Arran finds himself saddled with an illegal cargo, a bargain for his soul that he can’t hope to keep, and the unwelcome scrutiny of Megrithe Prinsthorpe, a tenacious trade inspector intent on seeing him hang for his misdeeds.

After uncovering a plot that could replace the Siheldi with something much worse, Arran must decide just how much he’s willing to sacrifice to the spirits that have had him marked out since the night his father’s death changed his life forever.

Where the Light Bends at the Cracks

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I’ve been quiet lately.  Usually when blogs go quiet, first for a few days here, then for a few weeks after an apologetic update, it means they’ve started down an irrevocable road to the dusty, inactive server rooms of purgatory.  The number of blogs that are eventually abandoned is staggering – up to 95 percent, some sources claim – and I’d be lying if I said I haven’t contributed to that number three, four, maybe even five times before.

But this is not one of them.

The thing about writer’s blogs is that you only really have three options.  One, you document the ups and downs of your process in painful, monotonous detail, and bore everyone to tears.  Two, you turn it into an angst-dump for everything but writing, laboring under the mistaken believe that anyone cares about the reasons you’re not working on your magnum opus.  Three, you make yourself into a resource by gathering news and information, interviewing authors, writing book reviews, making connections, and generally offering a place for people to get something back from your work.

I’ve done all three to various degrees (I’m doing number two right now), and I’ve learned that the only blogs that even have a chance of surviving the depressing rate of attrition are the ones that tackle option number three and truly take off.  I think I’ve had moderate success starting to build a resource for people, and I like doing that.

The problem is that it takes time and investment.  Plenty of it.  I know this because that’s what I do for my day job, and it’s a lot of work.  In the past, I’ve had the luxury of having a few spare minutes in the afternoon and evening to pound out a few hundred words of helpful self-publishing know-how, or brainstorm a short story just to keep my fiction muscles limber as I work on bigger things.

But as most of you know, this has been a hard winter for me.  I’ve been sick – and I’ve only recently acknowledged to myself that that’s what has been happening.  Sleeping poorly has always just been a fact of my life, and I never considered it anything other than an annoyance that I needed to push past and get over.

Starting in September, for whatever reason, it turned into a full-blown chronic illness that needs medical treatment (on top of all the other conditions that contribute to the problem and are hellishly difficult to manage), and the process of receiving help has been so slow and torturous that I’m still waiting to set up an initial appointment with a second specialist who may be able to help me at some point – if I can get my insurance in order.

The tale is not unique.  If it was, I wouldn’t have a day job writing about how to improve patient management in the healthcare system.  And my problems aren’t as bad as other people’s problems.  I’m generally healthy; I can walk, breathe, see, and hear; I have full use of most of my faculties; I am not suffering with anything that will kill me sooner rather than later.  I’m grateful for that.

But it’s hard to be wake up every day so fatigued that my brain doesn’t have a chance in hell to hold back the depression and anxiety constantly waiting to pounce, or so groggy that driving to work becomes impossible, or so shattered and drained that I can’t do anything other than stare at the TV and eat things that are bad for me and cry and wait for the day to be over so maybe I can try again next time to stop wasting precious hours of my life.

So if you want to know why I’ve been quiet, it’s because I am keenly aware that the only things I have to say are gloomy and frustrated, negative and off-putting, and I’d rather go dark than spend time broadcasting the fact that I’m just not feeling well enough to do anything else.

I don’t like making the things that are wrong with me into the central feature of who I am.  I don’t go on message boards and hang out with other sleepy people, and I don’t want an Insomniacs Anonymous badge to wear on my lapel so everyone will ask me about it.  Sickness is a transient state of being: a separate entity that sometimes latches on to you, and I prefer to remember that instead of making my entire life about one single that’s happening to me.

Luckily, being sick hasn’t entirely stopped me from getting things done.  I’m doing very well at my job, because I’m pouring all the energy I have into it.  I still go to archery every week, whether I feel too tired or not, because I need to relieve my stress.  I’m still working on my fiction, albeit a little slowly.

Dark the Dreamer’s Shadow is a book full of frustrated people facing obstacles much bigger than themselves, and I think that editing it while in such a mood is a benefit rather than otherwise.  I’m very nearly done with a major pass at it, and I’m pleased with how it’s coming along.  It’s going to be a great book, and since I never heard back from that agent who expressed interest in the first one, I will probably be self-publishing it at some point during this spring or summer.

So there are things to look forward to, and reasons to keep my blog alive.  I’m not giving up on self-publishing.  I’m not giving up on anything, really.  I’ve just got to break this siege before I can attack the next targets I’ve set for myself.  I’m going to keep chipping away at everything, because the problems I’m facing are solvable.  The time will pass.  The appointments will get made.  The answers are there.

For those of you who want to stick around, thank you.  For those of you who don’t…well, I doubt you’re even reading this right now.  But I hope you will all come back for my next book release, whenever that may be, and celebrate the fact that no matter what you’re facing, there’s always a way to get things done.

Death and Discworld: The Passing of Terry Pratchett

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If you haven’t heard by now, the literary world – and the fantasy genre in particular – has lost one of its most brilliant voices.  Terry Pratchett died today after several years battling an aggressive form of Alzheimer’s disease, leaving behind dozens of novels and one of the richest, cleverest, and most challenging fantasy worlds ever created, and one that had a profound impact on so many aspects of my life that I’ve long since lost count of how many times I’ve revisited the same books over and over and over.

I am probably so attached to Discworld because I discovered it in my early teens, when I was just starting to realize how difficult it was to make sense of the world I was living in.  It will hardly come as a surprise to those of you who know even a tiny bit about me that I was an awkward, angry, depressive, frustrated, and easily bored adolescent who took refuge in reading like a snail in a shell.  Most of my memories from that time are unpleasant ones about being told that I would have to come out someday to face reality head-on, and I should just suck it up, cut my hair, learn how to wear heels and get it over with.

I didn’t.  Not for a long time.  I liked my shell.  I liked thinking that fantasy was the way to hide my head in the sand while being anyone I wanted to be, and living any way I wanted to live.  It was all so different and exciting and exotic, as fantasy worlds should be.

There was the charm and nobility of Tolkien, the sweeping, soapy melodrama (and questionable suitability for my age group) of the Wheel of Time, the imaginative tangibility of Tad Williams, and the taste of blood and earth and hope in Stephen Lawhead.  I loved them, and I longed to inhabit those worlds, but part of me always knew that I wasn’t ever going to be cool enough or courageous enough or romantic enough to get much screen time in any of those places.

And then I met Rincewind.  And honestly, I really hated him.  He was awkward and frustrating and kind of whiny and a bit of a buffoon and – oh God, he was me, wasn’t he?  I hated me.  And honestly, I almost didn’t go back to the library for another one, because I couldn’t stand feeling so similar to someone who was basically just comic relief.

But I did go back.  And I met Sam Vimes, and everything kind of changed.  Here was someone who kept moving forward no matter how much he hated himself and struggled with flaws he couldn’t help having.  He was wry and abrasive and a little selfish, and he wasn’t quite sure if he was ever doing the right thing, but he was damned if that ever stopped him from trying.  Sam Vimes faced his world the same way I faced mine (only with slightly more alcohol), and suddenly I started to realize that not every hero has to laugh at death while waving their sword at the enemy from atop a noble steed.  Sometimes you can get away with standing to the side at a judicious distance, hiding a wheeze.

Ankh-Morpork and its environs were full of those not-quite-heroes.  Discworld was full of cowards and con men and outsiders and people who spouted nonsense and people who spoke so much truth that it had to be wrapped in humor just to get it past the filters in your brain.  It was full of hard and unexpected things to struggle with, and there was always someone willing to eat what you wanted to throw away.  It was full of life, bitingly observed and perfectly captured, and no matter how many new books I added to my shelf, there was always, always something new to learn about how to be smart enough to take on my own life in my real world, too.

And that’s really the beauty of Discworld.  Pratchett wrote fantasy that sticks a knife in your gut, rips you open and forces you to acknowledge that all people in all worlds are basically the same, and we’re all kind of equally gross and squishy inside.

His work taught me lessons that every teenager needs to hear – chief amongst them being how to kick ass – and he did it in terms that were so unexpectedly personal to me that they have sunk in deeply and stuck like nothing else.  I cherish his wit and his ability to make me laugh out loud, but more importantly I cherish his shrewdness of mind and the skill with which he infused his characters with such an ability to get under your skin, even while they were changing out of theirs.

I know I’m going to go home tonight, pour myself a glass of fruit juice, and spend some quality time with the six shelves of Discworld books I’ve collected over the years.  If you haven’t read one, now is as good a time as any.  I always tell people to start with Men at Arms, one of the first Vimes books, but Guards! Guards! is a good jumping off point, too.  Regardless of where you start, I hope you enjoy them even a fraction as much as I have.

I don’t think I’d be a fantasy writer without Discworld, but more importantly, I don’t think I’d be the same person.  I never met Terry Pratchett, and now I never will, but it’s funny how much you can owe to people who never even knew you existed.

Thank you for leaving such a marvelous legacy, and making us laugh the whole time.  We’re in your debt.

SFWA to Accept Self-Published Sci-Fi and Fantasy Authors as Members

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Self-published fantasy and sci-fi authors who meet minimum income requirements will now be able to become members of the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers America (SFWA), one of the biggest and most respected groups for speculative fiction authors in the industry.  Among other activities, SFWA is responsible for running the Nebula Awards, the Golden Globes to the Hugo Awards’ Oscars.

“Writers write. Professional writers get paid a decent amount for what they write,” said SFWA President Steven Gould. “For the past five years, it’s been apparent that there are ways to earn that decent amount that were not being covered by our previous qualification standards. Though these changes took a substantial amount of time, I’m grateful to everyone who worked toward this end.”

Vice President Cat Rambo said the move would help SFWA “[adapt] itself to the changing face of modern publishing,” which sounds really nice for an organization that has been trying to rehabilitate itself after fierce allegations of sexism that took out its previous president and sparked ongoing debates about the role and representation of women and minorities in a genre traditionally dominated by improbably muscled shirtless white dragon-slayers saving blonde sexpot damsels in distress.

So while this gesture at inclusion is super cool for self-published authors who have made at least $3000 off a single novel or those who have sold at least 10,000 total words of short fiction for six cents per word, it’s not clear exactly how many self-pubbers are going to qualify.  My guess is that there won’t be many.

Recent data suggests that the majority of self-pub authors earn between $1 and $4,999 per year, but that’s a pretty big range, and it’s likely that most of the authors fall close to the bottom of it.  The data also doesn’t indicate whether those authors have published one book or one hundred, so it’s hard to tell if there will be an influx of Active members.  To nab an Associate membership, authors have only to sell a single story of at least 1000 words at the same six-cent rate.

“We are using existing levels of income but are now allowing a combination of advances and income earned in a 12 month period to rise to the qualifying amounts,” the announcement says, which may help self-publishers that rely on momentum instead of pre-sales to work their way into the target zone.  But it’ll be hard to tell the real impact of the decision until indie authors start to put in their applications.

Having more or less followed the inclusiveness flame-war over the past few years, I can’t say I’m a big fan of the SFWA or how they handled themselves.  They have some big problems that need to be worked out in the long term, and I’m not sure that I would join even if I could manage to approach the financial requirements.

But I do think this is an important signal to the speculative fiction industry, and the traditional publishing machine at large, that powerhouses like the Big Five only make up one lane on a road that’s broadening as we speak.  I like to see anything that shows self-publishing gaining acceptance in meaningful ways, and I think it’s a good gesture.  Only time will tell if it’s a meaningful one.

Snowed Under, Bowled Over

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As some of you may have heard, the Northeast has been experiencing a spot of weather over the past few weeks. A handful of blizzards and a couple of feet of snow might not seem like much to any of you who may live along or over the Canadian border, but for the Boston area, this winter has been one long ice cream headache.

We’ve been setting and breaking records this month, but the charm of being the best at everything (including that football thing, suckers) has left us with nearly 100 inches of snowfall to contend with. That means a lot of disruptions to my usual routine. Working from home, shoveling out my car, white-knuckle driving to the grocery store, continuing to lose sleep, and missing medical appointments has left me a little confused and agitated. Oh, yeah…let’s not forget that I spent an entire week curled up in bed with a knock-out bout of food poisoning.

For Inkless, that has meant another one of those pesky silences for which I have to issue my standard apology. Oddly enough, however, this whole snow globe shakeup has left me in a pretty good place, writing-wise. I’ve picked up the process of editing Dark the Dreamer’s Shadow, the second book in the Arran Swinn series, thanks in part to the little bits of extra rest I can get on a snow day.

I also have to thank the fact that I received a little bit of encouragement from the publishing industry last week. After indulging in a whim by submitting Dark the Night Descending to an agent pleading for queries over Twitter, I had my first ever request for a partial. This is awesome because a) it’s always nice to feel wanted, and b) the fact that the book was self-published already didn’t deter this agent from being interested in reading a bit more. I consider that a bit of a victory for all of us, regardless of the outcome.

I don’t know when or if I’ll hear back, or what the verdict will be, but the request was a much-needed shot in the arm for me. The dark and cold and endless digging with frozen fingers and fogged up glasses has left me feeling more than a little under the weather (literally), and it’s been a tough few months trying to keep my chin up. And when you’re so focused on trying to slog through each day without breaking down in the middle, you tend to forget that good things can happen in the world outside your ski goggles.

So whether or not spring is ever going to make an appearance, and whether or not I have a shot at traditional publishing, I’m going to keep pursing the things that make it worthwhile to dust off the car every day. My day job is going really well, archery continues to bring me much happiness while improving steadily, and Oliver has been beside himself with joy now that the snow has kept me home so much. And my birthday is next week, which brings with it all the artificial pleasantries the Internet has to offer.

The goal will be to stay warm, stay motivated, and work on my release, because follow-through is everything no matter what target you have in your sights.