contemporary fiction

authors + rough riders + amazon reviews = kerfuffle

I’ve been very good for the last few years when it comes to Amazon. That is: I have weaned myself away from going over there every day, because (as I’ve mentioned before) there’s really nothing to be gained except anxiety of an astonishing depth and variety. For example, these questions:

Where does my novel rank today overall? In fiction? In historical fiction? In family saga historical fiction? In kinda-romance-kinda-not-women’s-fiction?

How many reader reviews? Really? That many? That few?

What’s the average reader score? Really? And the standard deviation? You don’t say. Any zingers today? What’s an author to do?

And so on.

I am writing this post because apparently some authors actually do answer that last question by calling on their fangirls to ride out and demand justice (as they see it). It goes like this: Reader A writes a review of The Prince and the Everlasting Magical Orgasm that is less than glowing. Let’s say it’s directly negative. Words like: waste and trash abound. PEMO’s author takes exception, and the next thing you know, Reader A’s negative review is bombarded with negative ratings of its own. You can do that by clicking NO next to the question was this review helpful? Which really should read: Will you show some mercy to a reader who disagrees with you? So the fangirls all bombard the review with NO NO NOs, and then at some point a switch is triggered and the review gets dumped.

If the author of the negative review posts it again, the same thing is likely to happen.

If you wander through the Amazon discussions you’ll see long threads on problems of this nature along with a lot of speculation on how those negative reviews disappear. Some suspect author interference, but as far as I am aware, an author who writes to Amazon to ask that a negative review be squashed is patted on the head and sent away. There, there dear. It will stop stinging soon.

The only time Amazon will edit the review is if that review gives away major plot twists. Even then, they try to leave as much as they can when they edit out the spoilers.

If it were possible for authors to snap fingers and demand a bad review disappear, you can be pretty sure there would be no bad reviews on Amazon at all. Either the author, the editor, the agent or sometimes screaming rampaging rough riding fangirls would see to that.

All this is my way of getting around to the topic of a one-star review of Pajama Girls. I wanted to talk about it because it actually made me see something I hadn’t noticed before. The reviewer took offense because she believed the story was about a woman who had secrets and wasn’t willing to share them. Which you know, perfectly reasonable: it says that on the book jacket. But this reader could not reconcile those statements about the character with the fact that when it comes to sex, she’s not repressed at all. In fact, to be clear: she’s in bed with John Dodge two days after she meets him.

This, said the reader-reviewer in a distinctly disgusted tone, is not somebody who is secretive and closed-off.

What took me by surprise was simply this: I didn’t anticipate this problem. I’m usually pretty good at guessing where readers will get hung up, but in this case I overlooked the obvious. Julia and Dodge end up in bed two days after he arrives in Lambert Square, which for some people can only mean that Julia is a woman of questionable moral character, or at the very least, sexually over active and indiscriminate. My personal take on this is that there are many kinds of intimacy and some are easier than others. The ones that are the most difficult don’t have much to do with sex, at least, in Julia’s case.

Let me restate something I have said in the past: if you have to explain what you hoped the reader would take away from the story, you failed. Clearly I failed in this case to make the reader see Julia the way I see her. Which is unfortunate, but almost unavoidable. There will always be readers who just cannot get past some element of a novel, no matter how well done it is otherwise. That’s to be expected. This particular one-star review makes sense to me, even if I don’t agree with it.

There are one-star reviews that don’t make much sense. For example, the woman who complained that her copy of the novel had two pages out of order, and for that reason, gave it one star. But in this case, I see the reader’s problem, and I have to acknowledge it. It would be wrong to ask that her review be taken down. That would be censorship, plain and simple.

Once in a while I go over to Amazon to see what there is to learn from the reader reviews. This time there was something interesting, if not especially pleasant. Now you’re wondering if I clicked “yes” next to “was this review helpful?”

Would you?

a very odd (but not bad) day

First, I wrote a lot of words. A whole lot. More, I think, than I have ever written in one day before. Gone a gusher would not be too much said.

How many words and more information on this I cannot provide, as my superstitious Italian self will not allow me to put such things out there for the Evil Eye to jinx. But it was good.

Then Laura Vivanco, an academic in Great Britain whose area of specialization is the study of the socio-cultural and literary context of the romance novel, wrote a long post at Teach Me Tonight called “A Case Study on Genre: Rosina Lippi’s Tied to the Tracks and The Pajama Girls of Lambert Square in which she takes both novels under her microscope and comes up with a couple dozen very interesting observations. I was surprised and happy, because hey, I am a recovering academic and I spent my adult life from age 27 to 47 immersed in it up to my neck, and I know what effort went into it.  So a public thanks to Laura, and an acknowledgment: I know my two most recent novels are not exactly romance, or romantic comedy, or anything else, for that matter. I know that I don’t fit into any genre. That fact has made things pretty difficult for me, marketing wise. Laura’s solution:

If I had to choose a label for these novels, I’d make up a new one. I think they’re contemporary romantic emotional-mystery fiction.

Which she admits needs to be shorter. So if somebody could (1) come up with a catchy term that gets the same idea across and (2) magically insert that term into the group consciousness, that would be really helpful. I’d be thrilled. I actually quite like emotional-mystery, though I fear it won’t catch on.

Finally (and this is the real oddity). Paperback Writer has a post up about the one-sentence story website that I wrote about last week, and she links back here. Nothing odd about that, the normal tip of the hat to another weblog author who has pointed you in an interesting direction. What is odd, however, is that Lynn’s post was picked up — I still find it hard to believe this — by Andrew Sullivan on his Daily Dish weblog.

I have great respect and admiration for Paperback Writer, but Andrew Sullivan? Yikes. Rather than go into a long explanation of why I stay away from everything having to do with Andrew Sullivan, I point you to Mickey Kaus at Slate, who managed to sum up my feelings about A.S. concisely:

Andrew Sullivan has decided to give out a Nancy Grace Award. Criteria (suggested by Sullivan’s readers) include “a nauseating level of absolutist self-righteousness,” an “unflappable self-assurance that [the nominee’s] outrage represents the true moral high ground on any issue” despite a propensity to “flip flop”–and a habit of “excessive personal attacks.” [Emphasis added]… You mean like righteously bullying anyone who fails to support a war in Iraq, then turning around and righteously attacking the people who are prosecuting it? … Can you think of any nominees? I’m stumped. source

I hope S.L. gets a ton of traffic due to the link, but it did take me aback. The only parallel I can think of would be if Laura Bush or (even worse) Ann Coulter announced publically that Tied to the Tracks was her favorite all time novel. Nightmare material.

take the money. or maybe not.

I’ve been thinking about doing this for a couple years, and today I was looking at a royalty statement and I thought, what the hell. I think people will find it interesting and maybe even helpful.

ITW Royalty Statement NA 2007This is the summary page of the Into the Wilderness royalty statement for 2007.

Let me point some things out. Under Current you’ll see that no hardcover copies were sold in 2007 — because, of course, the hardcover edition is out of print. This statement only represents new sales of new books. However, in 2007 the mass market edition of ITW sold 7,634 copies, or about 614 copies every month. Considering the fact that the mass market edition was first released in August of 1999, that is a pretty healthy number.

Since it was first released, ITW has sold 241,813 mass market copies and 25,246 hardcover copies in the U.S. and Canada. This statement doesn’t cover sales overseas. If I had those numbers someplace where I could find them, I’d give those to you as well. But I don’t. The number is pretty high, though, given the loyal readers I’ve got in Australia and New Zealand. Somewhere around 100,000 copies. There are also editions in Germany, Spain, Sweden, Great Britain and a couple other places that aren’t coming to mind right now, but none of those sales figures are represented here.

You’ll see that the original “guarantee” ( advance) was $150,000 (a very good advance today, and even better in 1998). Translation? The royalties on ITW exceed the advance, which is what is called “earning out” — the publisher calculated the number of copies they thought they could sell, and paid an advance based on those calculations. In this case things worked out well. Not all my novels have earned out. Yet. She said hopefully.

This is the problem: if you have five novels in print, or two, or thirty, the publisher won’t offer another contract without looking at these sales figures. If they have miscalculated badly, it hurts them first but it also hurts the author. Say for example that the publisher offers Author J. Jones oh, three million for a two book deal. J. Jones leaps into the air with excitement. Oh boy oh boy. His career is made.

But the publisher got it wrong. The J. Jones novel doesn’t tank, but it never surges. It just bobs along mid-list. Three years down the line it’s only generated $25,000 in royalties — which means a lot more books have to sell before Jones has earned the 1.5 million he’s already got in his pocket for that first novel for the two book deal. You might think that J. Jones won’t care — he gets to keep the whole three millions (as long as he delivers the second book as well) regardless of how many copies sell. If these two books never earn out, so what?

Here’s the so what: J. Jones still has lots of books he wants to write. Some really great ideas, one of which (looking into my crystal ball) is destined to hit number one and stay there for months.

Except it doesn’t get written, because J. Jones is a bad bet, according to the numbers. The publisher is not going to throw good money after bad. Now, if Jones had got an advance of $100,000 and the book earned out in two years, his agent can go to the publisher with some real leverage and negotiate a much better deal for that second contract. If things continue along that trajectory, Jones will build a career, and a lucrative one at that.

Or he could invest his three million and live off the interest, never putting words to paper ever again. If inflation doesn’t eat it all up, of course. Now, a good agent will be able to weigh the pros and cons of the publisher’s offer and make some suggestions based on long-term goals. A good agent is there for the duration, and has more invested in you that the one book in hand. A bad agent will push you to grab what you can and run so that s/he can do the same thing. Which is a disserve to you in about a dozen different ways.

This is a pretty complex topic and I’ve glossed over a lot of details. Please feel free to ask questions, and I’ll try to answer them.

EDITED TO ADD: If you find this kind of thing interesting or useful, I’ll do it more often. But you have to let me know if you’d like to hear more. If you don’t comment I figure I’ve bored everybody to death.

excellent review

There’s a really good review of The Pajama Girls of Lambert Square by Melinda Bargreen in the Easter edition of The Seattle Post-Intelligencer. ((Which is a relief, after the horrendous review they ran of Tied to the Tracks — that one wasn’t by Melinda Bargreen, please note.)) As Lambert Square is now getting some attention, I think it’s time for a new edition of the newsletter.