A Publisher’s Weekly and ABNA Reviewer Responds to Disappointment

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Note: Yes, fellow blizzard friends and horrible, mean, dry, warm people elsewhere in the country, I am writing this from under about 30 inches of snow. So far the power and the heat have both stayed on, and the enforced solitude will be tons of fun right up until I have to get out the shovel.


A couple of days ago, I wrote about the cancellation of the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award and how my experience in the contest was too great a disappointment for me to mourn its passing. I wrote about the unsatisfactory results of the quarterfinal round, where I received my review from Publisher’s Weekly, and accused the powers-that-be of sloppiness, inattention, and general negligence when skimming through Dark the Night Descending on their way to tossing it in the trash bin.

I stand by pretty much everything I’ve said about the contest, but I was fortunate enough to receive an unsolicited email from a long-time ABNA judge and regular PW reviewer, Thriller Guy, who had a couple of salient points about what happens on the receiving end of the process.

Here is part of the very long letter, which I am reproducing here mostly just to put it on the record in the interest of fairness. I do encourage you to read the whole thing:

I’m always reading a book for review. I’ve done reviews for every genre, though I’m now primarily reviewing Thrillers. So it wasn’t me who reviewed your book last year! I always forget about the ABNA until PW asks if I’ll do it again, I say yes and forget about it again until the stack of books rolls in a few months later and I realize I’ve got to read them and review them on top of my regularly scheduled reviews. All this is to point out that I’m not exactly a bored PW intern.

I’ve never been entirely clear on what the books I’m judging have gone through before they get to me, mostly because I’ve never asked. There’s probably an intern involved somewhere, though I can assure you that by the time it gets to me — the quarter-finals, I guess — the reviewers are “professionals” who are pretty much donating their time, even though, as you say, they toss a couple of hundred dollars at us.

Since I deal with writers who are, many of them, just starting out, I can assure you that if I had to read every submission in its entirety from the earliest stages of the contest I would go insane. You’d be amazed how many folks out there can’t follow the simplest directions for submitting their books, and, I’m sorry to say, how many really, really terrible books do make it onto desks to be evaluated before being moved along or rejected. I mean terrible in that some of them look like they’ve been “written” by little children who are trying to operate in a grown-up arena.

So I consider the people who are on the front line of this book assault to be saintly in their patience at even undertaking the task. Maybe they’re interns, I don’t know, but I doubt they’re bored. Frustrated, driven mad, overworked, and unappreciated is probably more like it.

In addition to simply reading, when I write the review, PW has me note every character name in the book, reference every major plot development, quote (if used in the review), every major geographical location shift, and back up any negative impressions about the writing with references to pages. Then my saintly editor checks every one of those references to make sure I haven’t screwed up, and then his editor checks his rewrites (at which point they may ask questions to clarify what I’ve written, which I answer) and then the review goes into the magazine.

So when I write a review for the ABNA books, I have done all that same work. I don’t know who’s only reading four chapters, but it must be the folks who read the books before I get them, because I read every word of every book and make notes before I write my review. 

I suppose there are others who do less, but there are always people who do less, though I think probably it makes little difference in the long run. It’s just not my ethic to not give every book the same due diligence, and I have a feeling I am the norm rather than the exception. 

I can assure you that no book reviewer opens a book, or turns on a Kindle, looking for a bad book or a way to say that a book is bad. Every time the hope is, “OK, maybe I’ve got a prizewinner, this is going to be great, grab me by the neck and pull me into the pages.” If it doesn’t happen, the reviewer does his job and tries to explain what went wrong. And open the next book on the pile.

I had a nice discussion about all this with Thriller Guy, who seemed genuinely passionate about what he does and how he does it. While it was heartening to hear that at least some ABNA competitors probably received a thoughtful review, we both came to the conclusion that I, and pretty much everyone on this thread, probably just succumbed to the luck of the draw.

Thriller Guy seemed to think that PW was probably unaware of the vitriol sparked by the disproportionate number of inaccurate and hasty write-ups, and offered to pass it on our comments to someone in the office who might be interested to hear it. Since the contest is now kaput, there’s little to be done about it. But it’ll be nice to know that we’re being heard in some small way, regardless. I’m glad to give at least one of the judges the same courtesy.

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Amazon Scraps Breakthrough Novel Award in Favor of Kindle Scout

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Well, it looks like I got my (very irritating) ABNA experience on the books just in time.  The Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award is officially kaput, according to an announcement on the ABNA forums, and will be kinda-sorta-not-really replaced by the new Kindle Scout program.

Anonymous ABNA Administrator has this to say about the switch:

This fall we opened Kindle Scout as a reader-powered publishing platform that offers authors an opportunity to earn a guaranteed advance, a decision on publication in 45 days or less, the ability to retain print rights, and Amazon marketing for published books. Since launch, more than 20,000 readers have nominated the stories they want to see published and we have selected 16 original novels to be released early this year, with more chosen every week. In 2015 instead of hosting the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award in its current form we will be using our new Kindle Scout program to discover and publish even more breakthrough novels throughout the year. Over time, we look forward to adding features to Kindle Scout and opening the program to even more authors and genres.

Lots and lots of angry ABNA hopefuls have this to say:

Are you freakin’ kidding me?

Now, I’m no fan of the ABNA slaughterhouse, which starts with a lottery, moves on to the fickle finger of whimsical fancy, and ends with a bored Publisher’s Weekly intern slitting open your thorax and frying up your heart for supper.  But for tens of thousands of people, the international contest is a yearly source of hope in a world that is mostly about crushing your dreams.  ABNA cost nothing, was open to anyone in the world, promised big rewards, and perhaps most importantly, accepted novels that had already been self-published.

Kindle Scout, Amazon’s new show-and-tell that looks primarily geared towards romance writers (but accepts a smattering of other genre fiction), still costs nothing.  But it’s only open to Americans with American bank accounts, which has gotten a lot of foreigners up in arms.  And most importantly, will only accept entirely unpublished manuscripts for consideration.

This seems silly to me, considering what a huge player Kindle has become in the self-publishing world.  Everyone uses KDP.  Everyone is trying to grab a piece of the Amazon publicity pie.  Everyone knows you really can’t get anywhere without Amazon’s blessing…yet books published through Amazon’s own self-publishing system are ineligible for Amazon’s own cash prizes?

Step one: upload soul.  Step two: cry.

Step one: upload soul. Step two: cry.

That’s why this Kindle Scout thing isn’t a direct replacement for ABNA.  It’s also much, much more geared towards friend-farming than ABNA ever was.  Kindle Scout relies on public votes to push books towards the finish line.  So if you’ve got a massive Twitter following or a rabid Facebook hoard on your hands, you’re a million times more likely to succeed than someone who has written a damn good book but doesn’t have the social media savvy to get enough votes in 30 days to launch your submission into the top ranks (ahem…me).

In general, I think it’s another one of those things that’s good news for Amazon and bad news for everyone else.  Are we surprised?  No, probably not.  I wasn’t planning to enter the contest again, so it’s not too big of a disappointment for me.

But what about you guys?  Are you annoyed by this?  Does Kindle Scout look interesting to you?  Is it just another hollow promise on the part of a publishing goliath that chews up and spits out hard-working authors for fun?  Are you going to submit stuff anyway?  Let me know in the comments…even if you’re not American.

A farewell to ABNA: What contests and rejection can teach us

11866617_rejected_without_review_1I won the first real writing contest I ever entered.  In 11th grade, I submitted a poem hastily translated into French, to the Long Island Language Teachers Association’s annual competition, and took first prize in my age group (much to the chagrin of a certain unnamed classmate who expected to be victorious).  It was a little slice of teenaged angst that sounded much better in French, as most things do, and I still have the silly little medal that commemorated the honor tucked away in my trunk of bittersweet childhood memories.

I won the second real contest I ever entered, which was Shelf Unbound’s inaugural Best Indie Book Competition – the contest is now open again, and I urge you to enter it – and while I didn’t get a fancy shiny medal for it (what gives, Margaret?), I did get a sense of accomplishment and pride that continues to sustain my budding writing career to this day.

I’ve been accepted to all (but one) of the colleges where I’ve applied based on the strength of my essays, and I’ve received close to the highest marks possible on my SATs, AP tests, and even my GED.  I was a competent scholar in high school and college, though I wasn’t much of a shining star…except when it came to the written word, and I have been made used to the idea, through the praise of teachers and others, that what I write will be successful.  Period.

You may think I’m boasting right now, but bear with me for a moment, because I’m about to come crashing back down to earth.

My first rejection by an agent made me cry.  It wasn’t a single tear that rolled down my cheek as I scratched the name off my list and moved on to the next one.  It was a real, blotchy, heaving little tantrum, and I thought I’d never recover enough to write another word again.  I was mortified and disgruntled and shocked – shocked, I tell you – that someone didn’t like what I could write.  It’s more embarrassing to talk about how upset I was than the fact that I received a very polite ‘no thanks’ from someone who didn’t pick me out of the slush pile.  But you can’t talk about being a writer without talking honestly about rejection.

And that brings me to ABNA.  It isn’t the first contest I’ve lost (I’ll never see the $100 bucks I spent on losing the Writer’s Digest contest again), but it is the biggest.  I had high hopes for it from the beginning, and just about every step of the way, those hopes were dashed.  I didn’t win the big cash prize.  I didn’t win the smaller one.  I didn’t make it to the semi-finals, as I found out on Friday.  I didn’t even get the Publisher’s Weekly review I was hoping for, which I discussed in greater detail here.

I barely got anything I wanted out of the contest, and yet I didn’t have an ugly cry on Friday when I read the short-list and came to the end without seeing my name.  That’s not because I’ve somehow acquired a godlike stoicism that elevates me above all other mortal beings.  It’s because I’ve been rejected again and again since that first agent passed on my novel, and you know what?  I’ve built up a bit of a tolerance to it.

Whether you’re submitting to an agent or a competition, putting yourself up for offer is a stressful, difficult thing.  It makes your heart hurt and your throat tighten up, often for long periods of time as you wait and wait and refresh your email and wait and wait and check your phone.  They’re not fun, and neither is the fact that most of the time, it’ll all be for nothing.  I love to hate them, as I would love to hate going to the gym if I had a membership and/or the willpower to pay as much attention to my self-care as I do to characters living in worlds that don’t exist.

Contests and submissions are a necessary form of exercise for anyone who wants to keep their writing career in good shape.  You can’t keep eating cake to celebrate your stunning achievements and then not expect to get a little chubby if you never have periods of deprivation to balance it out.  You have to keep working harder to make the successes all the sweeter, and that’s part of the fun.

Rejection sharpens the brain and works out the kinks in your muscles to keep you fighting fit next time you head into the fray.  And there will always be a next time, because just like physical exercise, the endorphins are addicting.  Just like athletes, writers need to test their limits, and just like in sports, someone or other is always going to come up short.  Someone is always going to feel a little battered and beaten for a while, but that’s the nature of the game.

And it is a wonderful game to play, even when parts of it kind of suck.  I feel lucky to be a part of it, and I wish I had started earlier, both with my successes and my failures.  If I’ve learned anything from ABNA, it’s not to venerate contests too highly, and not to shy away from them, either.   Complacency and stagnation are the enemies of creativity, and a good wallop to the ego every now and again can shake you up and make your work more impactful (once you’ve finished a bottle of wine or two).

Will I enter ABNA again next year?  I don’t know.  But will I enter other contests in the future?  You bet I will.  With my new series on the way, there’s likely going to be plenty of random one-star reviews and dismissive comments to go around.  I will do my best to take them in stride, because you can’t please everyone all the time, even if naïve little teenaged Jen might have gotten that impression with some early successes.

So with just a few regrets, I say farewell to ABNA and its promises, and hello to whatever’s next.  Onwards and upwards.

On the perils of the disappointing book review

Santo_Domingo_y_los_albigenses-detalleWarning: This post was manufactured in a facility that also processes self-pity. May contain traces of nuts and stronger swear words.

Bad reviews are inevitable. As an author, you have to be thick-skinned enough to take criticism, even when it’s unconstructive. As a reader, you have the right to get what you pay for, and the right to complain about it when you don’t. We all know this when we buy or sell a book. It’s part of the social contract of readership, and that’s totally cool. We learn from our unpleasant experiences and move on from them a richer, wiser person. Right?

Well…no. Let’s be honest. Getting a bad review sucks. It stings and burns and makes you squirm in your seat like an itch you just can’t scratch, because in most cases, you can’t reach out to that reader and explain to them in painful detail what exactly you were trying to accomplish, what exactly they got wrong, and how exactly they are supposed to think about your flawless masterpiece.

It’s tough. For example, quarterfinalists in the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Awards (ABNA) got their Publisher’s Weekly reviews a few days ago, and I’ve never seen a group of authors try so very, very hard to keep their chins up in the face of what a disaster it was. While people are more likely to complain about bad reviews than post the good ones, I was rather shocked and a bit appalled at the quality of reviews – not the quality of the novels – that resulted from this particular scheme.

I won’t post my review in its entirety, since Dark the Night Descending isn’t published yet and the review contains spoilers, but I was confused and disappointed to find a near-total lack of professionalism from the person who read my book. The reviewer mixed up two major characters, which caused them to harp on the fact that my plot made no sense. They pointed out inconsistencies and open-ended questions, but they would have found out the answers had they read the entire book instead of just the first four chapters. And while they seemed to enjoy the tone and the quality of writing, they panned the overall work because of their own inattention and mistakes.

When I first read this block of text, I was absolutely furious. How could they make such elemental errors? Why did my participation in the contest have to suffer for it? Who were these people who dared to call themselves professional reviewers when they couldn’t even give their full attention to the task at hand?

I ranted on Twitter. I posted a snarky message on my Facebook page. I was ready to hunt down email addresses and write strongly-worded letters and generally storm about because Amazon should know that the people Publisher’s Weekly hired were not up to the task. I’ve heard from forum members that the reviews were laypeople offered a few hundred bucks to read lots of books in five weeks, which may or may not be true, but it would certainly explain a lot.

But…then I started reading the bad reviews that other people had posted. They had the same complaints about a lack of reading comprehension. The same level of outrage from jilted authors. The same dismay and frustration and anger when a book got totally destroyed by a piqued reader. The resigned acceptance of fate’s fickle finger from long-time participants in a contest I was just entering for the first time.

I calmed down a bit when I realized I wasn’t alone. I may have gotten shafted, but it wasn’t personal. It was just how this particular system worked. The system was terrible, and it wasn’t really fair, but I had signed an open-ended contract of readership with ABNA, and in the end, I had to take what my reader was going to dish out.

So I read my review again. And it wasn’t so bad, really. “Inventive and engaging” are good words. “Shows great promise” are also good words. I hope those sentiments are just as true as the negative ones. I will keep telling myself that they are. Of course it means I won’t be moving on to the semifinals, but there was an extremely slim chance of doing so in any case, and I didn’t expect it. I got what I came for, which was a quote with a Publisher’s Weekly tag attached to it that might help me sell some copies.

After achieving nirvana, with the help of some pizza and a long heart-to-heart conversation with my cat (he counseled patience, humility, and some of his favorite chicken treats), I came to the real question. Should I write about my sour experiences in a post like this, which has the potential to be misinterpreted, or should I delete all those zingers I had plastered across my social media accounts in the heat of the moment? Will people just think I’m a sore loser, or will they see my words as intended: a way to work through negative feelings while trying to be objective and reasonable?

Because for an author, that’s where the peril lies. It’s very hard to avoid being “the problem person” when everything you say or do online is squirreled away by Google to be trotted out every time someone types in your name. You don’t want to be that guy who oozes prickly negativity. You have to handle yourself with composure, grace, fortitude, politeness, and reserve. But does that mean not complaining about anything?  Ever?

I don’t think it does. “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all” is a great rule of thumb for the internet, especially when there is so much vitriol going around in the virtual world. Finding the balance between flagging what you perceive as an injustice and simply being a Negative Nelly is hard to do.

No one should ever attack a reader for not liking something they’ve read. If the content doesn’t tickle your fancy or if the style rubs you the wrong way, you have every right, as a reader, to tell me. Please do. But if you don’t bother to read correctly?

Then I’m sorry. I will try to be polite, but you have violated the contract of readership, and I think you kind of lose your right to express an authoritative opinion. It takes a lot of effort to write a book, and it isn’t respectful to the author to half-ass a glance at a few chapters and call yourself a professional reviewer using the name of a respectable company to back you up.

ABNA bills itself as one of the most highly sought-after prizes for self-published authors, and despite what you think about Amazon’s business practices, the name carries a hell of a lot of weight with customers. I think Amazon has seriously slighted its authors by structuring the contest in a way that doesn’t allow for a full consideration of manuscripts from seasoned, accomplished reviewers, and marred the integrity of the competition.

Should I be surprised? Maybe not, considering Amazon’s other recent negative press in the publishing world. I’m a trusting soul, even when it comes to megacorporations, and perhaps that’s a personal problem. But now I know that something I respected will not respect me, and I will behave accordingly.

And so I say fie and humbug to poor reviewers. A pox upon contests I don’t end up winning. Fiddlesticks to short attention spans, and a hearty cheer for those authors who have endured disappointment and lived to try again another day. Let’s all have a pizza and get back to work.

There. I feel better. How about you?

ABNA-cadabra!

8174195Sorry this post is a day late, but I spent all of yesterday thinking up puns for my title based on the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Awards.  You know why?  Because I just made it into the quarter-finals.  Yay!

As you may know from my last post on the topic, this is my first year entering the contest, and I’m absolutely chuffed to have made it this far.  With my first 5000 words passing the test for a panel of Amazon super-reviewing customers, the full manuscript of Dark the Night Descending now goes to a team of Publishers Weekly reviewers, who will no doubt tear it apart and leave it for dead on the side of the road before picking the best 5 sci-fi/fantasy/horror books out of the 100 still remaining.

And that’s totally okay.  I’m now guaranteed a review from Publishers Weekly, which is a pretty darn good prize, plus I get feedback from real readers on what is, essentially, a very rough draft.  I’m actually more than a little embarrassed about the typos and little mistakes that I wish I’d had time to smooth out, but the submission deadline was what it was.  Oh well.

The next cut isn’t for weeks and weeks, and I will be occupying my time by finishing up the first draft of the second book of the series, and hopefully even starting the conclusion.  I’m having a lot of fun with the story and the characters, and I hope you will, too, whether the book is eventually published by Amazon or by my own methods.  Unless I somehow make it into the semi-finals, I still anticipate a July release for Volume One.

In the meantime, I remain very busy.  I’m writing, editing a side project, doing my actual day job, and next week I get to start a stained glass class that I’m pretty excited about.  I might even take a few moments to step outside in the nice, warm weather…but only if I don’t get some lightning bolt idea for my plot first.

Stay tuned for more developments, and (hopefully) a return to the normal Monday posting schedule!

Shelf Unbound Self-Publishing Contest 2013

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Good morrow, lords and ladies!  I bring you excellent tidings to set your bodkins a-quiver.  Or something.

Shelf Unbound Magazine, patron saint of my early success and a bloody fine publication bringing exposure and praise to indie authors around the world, has opened its writing competition for self-published authors again!

If you’ve published a book through CreateSpace, Lulu, Amazon KDP, a different DIY house, or a small independent press that releases fewer than five titles a year, you’re eligible to take a chance at some awesome exposure and some amazing personal attention from super-publisher and all around wonder woman Margaret Brown.  The full rules are here [PDF], so give them a gander and get on board!

The deadline for entry is midnight on September 10, 2013, which gives you plenty of time.

Oh, and if you scroll down to the bottom of the contest page, you’ll see a friendly face (which belongs to me) and a brazen entreaty to give me your patronage.  I know many of you have already picked up a copy of The Last Death, for which I thank you, but if you haven’t yet, consider throwing your support behind my little campaign.  It is not a condition of entering the contest, just a bit of extraneous pandering.

I highly recommend that you give it a shot.  Last year there were close to 800 entries, and this year there will probably be more, but Shelf Unbound is a great publication to be a part of, and it’s worth a try.