Wednesday, July 9, 2014

When the words are big and fat and free . . . and good

Disclaimer:  I was never able to get into the Outlander gush.  There is a specific reason for this, and it's immaterial to this blog post.  I think I read about the first 50 pages and gave up.  I've never read any of the sequels, and don't have any desire to.

At any of the RWA national conferences I attended, one of the most exciting parts was the "goodie bag" handed out at registration.  These tote bags, usually with the conference logo blazoned on the front (along with some bookseller's ad copy) were crammed full with lots of freebies, especially books.  This was a good place for publishers to unload several hundred copies of remaindered paperbacks or new releases they were hyping.  The 1991 conference in New Orleans brought us all a big surprise, and I do mean big.  Ed Sullivan type really big.  A gorgeous, fat hard cover novel by an author none of us had ever heard of:  Outlander, by Diana Gabaldon.

There was no hype with it.  As far as I know, Gabaldon was not even a member of RWA at the time.  She did not speak at the conference, and her publisher provided no other advertising information.  We wondered what the heck was going on, that the publisher would hand out 1500 or so free copies of what looked to be a very expensive book.

A year or so later, many of us received free copies of the first sequel, Dragonfly in Amber.  Again, that was it, the book and nothing more.  By then my daughter had read Outlander and loved it, so I gave her both books.  She still has them to this day.

No one was asked to review the books, like them on Facebook, upvote them on Amazon, retweet their praises or downvote any trolls who didn't love them.  Obviously not, because there was no Facebook or Twitter.  "The web" was still four years in the future.

So how did the Outlander phenomenon develope without the aid of cyber hype? 

Very simply:  Gabaldon wrote a book, told a story, created characters that readers cared enough about to tell their trusted friends.

Nothing, absolutely nothing, sells a book like the book itself. 

As I wrote elsewhere and can't repeat often enough:

To parody the credit card commercial:
Review swap from fellow author? Free
5-star review on Goodreads? $5
Review and "Verified purchase" on Amazon? $10
Honest review from a genuine reader who tells her friends how wonderful your book is?
Priceless
You can buy all the Goodreads reviews and Facebook likes and Amazon upvotes and retweets and pins you want; you can't "buy" readers.
They aren't for sale at any price.
Write a book they love, however, and they'll pay you.

Friday, July 4, 2014

Lost Words, Found

The move into this house approximately eight years ago was a somewhat hasty job.  The decision to sell the house I'd lived in for almost 20 years was hasty, and hastier still was the actual sale.  The house was on the market less than a week when I received the first and, as it turned out, only offer.  I then had to scramble to find a place to move to, as well as pack up the accumulated . . . stuff.

That stuff included books.  A lot of them.  Thousands of them.

Thousands?

Yes, thousands.

There was no time to carefully inventory them and label the boxes.  When we ran out of boxes, books got packaged into plastic grocery bags.  Because the new house didn't have nearly as many shelves as the old one, some of those books languished in boxes and bags for months.  Slowly, steadily, I acquired bookcases and other furniture to house the books.  As they found permanent homes, I inventoried them, dutifully noting their location.  This is crucial because some of the shelves are themselves much deeper than the books, so there are often two or even three layers.  Even with the inventory, I often still have to go hunting for a particular volume.

Yes, thousands.  I'm not exaggerating.

But somehow or other, despite my attention to detail -- okay, my obsessive-compulsive disorder -- I managed to lose track of some books.  Not very many, but a few.

Interestingly, when we moved from Indiana to Arizona in 1985, virtually everything we brought with us arrived unscathed except for about 10 paperback books.  They'd been among the first things packed in the trailer and had gotten damp during a rainstorm before we left.  That storm had alerted us to a couple of small leaks in our home-made trailer, but we didn't think there had been any damage.  The loss of a few books -- which weren't destroyed, only had some cover damage -- was a small price to pay.

But on this 2006 move, I was a bit more dismayed when I began to discover I couldn't find certain books.  Books that I could have put my hand on in ten seconds before the move.  I knew none had been damaged in the move, and I couldn't imagine these being lost.  But I just couldn't find them.

None were particularly important or valuable or anything.  A few were autographed, like Carolyn Light's Minor Royalty, which she had sent me in connection with an RWA event.  Others were replacements for those Dollar Book Club selections my dad had collected, like Samuel Shellabarger's The King's Cavalier.  Why could I locate all my historical fashion and housewares books except the Dover reprint of the 1891 Jordan, Marsh catalog?  It, too, was missing. 

The one title whose loss bothered me the most was Anne Moody's Coming of Age in Mississippi.  It's readily available, so I could have replaced it without any trouble.  But it was one of the first texts I read during my first semester back in college in 1998, when I embarked on that little educational journey after an almost 25 year hiatus.  I had had to conquer my resistance to writing in a book so that I could highlight -- in pencil only! -- passages and points that seemed important, though in truth I was so immersed in Moody's autobiography that I often forgot to take notes.

During the many times I went looking for the book in all the places I expected it to be and came up empty handed, I suspected I might have lent it to my daughter.  However, when I visited her a couple of years ago, she said, no, she didn't have it though she remembered borrowing it from me to read for one of her own classes.

I shrugged and wrote the book off as lost.

But karmic connections are funny things.  One discussion on Goodreads led to another, one book led to another, and I found myself in my studio looking for a book that my inventory told me should be out here, Mary Stewart's Airs Above the Ground.  I didn't find it on the first search, but I gave up after only a few minutes because it was 130 degrees out here!  On the second search, I found it, and I was all set to just take it off the shelf and settle in to read it when I realized something.

It wasn't where it was supposed to be.  I knew the one, smaller bookcase in the studio had been inventoried.  And I knew some of the books on the larger bookcase had.  But as I took Airs Above the Ground off the shelf, I realized there were a bunch of books I had never catalogued.  Not on my handy dandy spreadsheet, and not on Goodreads.

I now know what happened.  Books on the small bookcase that had been inventoried were moved to the larger one to make room for others, but nothing already on the larger shelves had ever been listed.  Within a few seconds of grabbing the Stewart book, I discovered the Jordan, Marsh reprint.  As I moved a whole stack of paperbacks to reveal the row behind, I cheered, "Aha!"  The Last Unicorn was there, along with Barbara Chase-Riboud's Sally Hemings, another of my missing "treasures."  In the next row over, Coming of Age in Mississippi, with all my little pencilled notes.

So, okay, what does this have to do with anything?  The answer:  Nothing.  Except that I started this blog to chronicle my own return to writing, and reading has always been a vital part of writing for me.  I've not been able to do nearly as much writing as I would like, and this makes me unhappy and frustrated because I'm caught in the Catch-44  (twice as bad as Catch-22) of having to work a paying job that keeps me from the writing that might replace the income from the paying job, even though I have no illusions about the ephemeral nature of earnings from writing.

Today I found one of those books that's been missing for eight years.  Missing because I just didn't look in the right place.  And I got a reminder, in finding it, of how much greater the struggle to find voice has been for others.  Mine are still first-world whines.  I should shut up and write.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

I don't have to read a single word, and neither do you

You're probably thinking this post is going to be a defense of my oft-reviled tendency to rate or review books based on a reading of a single page or less.  Well, it's not.

Not exactly.

This is a simple challenge to all you self-publishing novelists whose digital sales are languishing and who have resorted to giving them away for free in attempt to boost sales without achieving the desired result.

Understand that I'm not addressing this to the writers whose books are selling to their satisfaction.  Nor am I addressing this to all writers who list their books for free.  No, I'm only addressing those who are dissatisfied with their sales and have chosen to give their books away as free samples but still haven't seen a significant rise in sales, whether of the same titles when not free, or other titles.  (Anyone else can try it, too, of course, but I'm specifically addressing that particular group.)

Part one of the challenge:  Take a look at any page of the digital text of your book.  First page, last page, third page of Chapter Twelve, it doesn't matter.  Bring it up on your Kindle or Kindle for PC or iPhone or any of the Kindle Direct Publishing emulators.  Not a PDF on your computer.  Not your original .doc file.  You need to be looking at the version that customers are going to be buying for their Kindles, iPads, smart phones, and so on.

Does your book have distinct paragraphs?  That means, is the beginning of each new paragraph clearly defined?  Yes, or no.  No other answer is possible.  Yes, the beginning is clearly defined, or no, it isn't.

Does it have block paragraphs?  That means, is the first line of each paragraph even with the left margin, and then has a blank line to separate it from the next paragraph?  Yes, or no.

Does it have indented block paragraphs?  That means, is the first line of each paragraph indented from the left margin and there is also a blank line to separate each paragraph from the next?  Yes, or no.

Does it have indented paragraphs?  That means, is the first line of each paragraph indented from the left margin and there is no extra line or space between one paragraph and the next?  Yes, or no.

You will have one Yes answer, and three No answers.  If you have four No answers, see me after class.  If you have more than one Yes answers, go back and review your answers.  If you can't figure out how to come up with one Yes and three No answers, see me after class.

Now, the second part of the challenge.  Look at random pages of several digital editions of books currently published by traditional print publishers.  If you can't afford to buy them, at least download some samples.  Go through the same four questions, and come up with the same single Yes answer.

Now, third part of the challenge.  Look at random pages of several digital editions of books currently published by successful self-publishing authors.  The easy way is to start with the front page of that listing on Amazon and just take the "Look Inside" preview.  By now you should be reasonably familiar with the four paragraphing style and be able to recognize very quickly which style is used in each book you examine.

If we number the four styles  -- none, block, block with indent, indent -- one through four, you should know what style yours is.  You should also have recognized that most, if not all, of the books you examined in parts two and three of the challenge use only the number four style: indented paragraphs without extra space between them.

Therefore, if you want to hope to compete with the established authors, with the authors who are selling their novels, you might to at least make your book look like theirs.  Nothing says, shouts, and screams SELF-PUBLISHING AUTHOR like no paragraphs, block paragraphs, and indented block paragraphs.  Figure out how to get your formatting to look professional.

(This challenge would also give you an opportunity to look at font styles and font sizes, if you're so inclined.)

Why is the type of paragraph such a big deal?  While it may not look to you like it should matter, it really does.

I'm going to assume you recognize the need for paragraphs on principle.  So that leaves out style number one.

While styles two and three clearly identify the separation of paragraphs, they also stop the reader's eyes from flowing to the next word/thought/action.  If you want your reader to keep reading, the very last thing you want her to do is . . . stop reading.  Not even for the tiny fraction of a second it takes her eyes to see that blank space, recognize it as just space, and then go on to the next line of text.  You want her to keep reading without a break, or at least until there's a break in the action, a change of scene, or whatever.  You'll indicate those with either a double break (the aforementioned blank line with or without a squiggly little design for emphasis) or a new chapter.

Block paragraphs work well for non-fiction if the author is presenting distinct information and wants the reader to take a tiny pause to think about what she's just read.  But fiction, when the author should want the reader to get into and stay in the story, any pause is just an opportunity for the reader to remember she has something else to do.  While you as the writer may allow her a convenient bathroom break between chapters, you don't want to be giving her those breaks every single paragraph.

More than one writer has excused the block paragraph format on the basis that it's easier on the reader's eyes.  While that's kind of the author to be so solicitous, it still means that the reader is given more and more and more chances to walk away, more and more chances not to be caught up in the story.  If you're so worried about the reader's eyes, make sure you don't use a tiny font, but don't make her blink and reread to maintain the flow of your narrative.

It's true, also, that in the old days of paper and ink books, extra lines meant extra paper, too, and we don't need to be that concerned about conserving paper when we're talking about digital books.  No, the only issue here is maintaining the reader's attention on the text.

Proper formatting of your paragraphs won't guarantee that you'll start selling 100 copies a week.  Proper formatting of paragraphs won't make up for poor grammar, ginormous plot holes, and TSTL characters.  But proper formatting of paragraphs may avoid some of the automatic turn-offs that come from readers who instantly recognize amateur presentation when they see it, before they've read a single word.

Saturday, March 1, 2014

The words that I needed



The Poldark saga came to PBS' Masterpiece Theatre in 1976.   In rural Indiana in those days, our television reception wasn't the best from either Fort Wayne or South Bend, but each Sunday evening I somehow managed to watch an episode of Poldark.  I was awaiting the birth of my first child -- she'll be 38 this coming week -- and hoped I wouldn't be in the hospital on a Sunday.  I wasn't.  (And she escaped being born on 29 February, which was her original due date!)

Just a couple of weeks ago, one of my online friends announced that her library had acquired copies of some of Winston Graham's "Poldark" books and wondered if the series was good.   I told her she would love them.  I owned the first seven volumes, had read three subsequent books, but had never got around to the last two.  I determined that evening to acquire the rest of the books, and immediately ordered used copies from . . . various places.  The last of them arrived just this past Tuesday.  I haven't had time to read them yet, but that's high on my priority list for what looks to be a fairly lazy, very rainy week-end.

But by 1976 I'd been a devourer of historical romances for 15 years or more; Graham's novels were not my introduction to the genre.  The post-Woodiwiss boom was in full flower, and I had already written a couple of novels myself.  Whether my exposure to Poldark sealed my fate or not, I'll never know, but I would certainly not deny it.

My daughter was born in March of 1976, my son in July 1977, so I had my hands full for the next few years.  But in spare moments here and there I found the time to flesh out a slightly gothicky, slightly swashbuckling novel that had been percolating in my brain for a while.  It's never been published, and probably won't be, though I suppose it has potential.  Through that experience, however, I studied and practiced the various aspects of the art of writing, so that by the time I started Legacy of Honor in 1980, I felt more confident that I'd created a story worth sharing.

Legacy was, of course, the child of many parents, including Frank Yerby, Samuel Shellabarger, Leslie Turner White, Rafael Sabatini . . . and Winston Graham.  My writing was also influenced by my visual experience of movies and television.  I wrote as I "saw" the scenes in my mind, as if they were played out on a big screen in a theatre or a little screen in my living room.  And so I "heard" the voices of Errol Flynn and Tyrone Power, Basil Rathbone and Olivia de Havilland . . . and Robin Ellis and Angharad Rees.

(Photograph: Ronald Grant Archive)



Legacy of Honor begins in Paris, adventures through Russia, and ends in Cornwall.  I've never been to Cornwall (or Russia, for that matter), but in writing the scenes I drew upon Daphne du Maurier's novels and her non-fiction Vanishing Cornwall, and upon what I remembered of the BBC Poldark series.  We had no internet then, no world wide web and Google with its millions upon millions of photographs and videos.  I built up a small but very precious personal library of books on Cornwall, and did the best I could.

The past couple of years, since I began republishing some of my novels including Legacy of Honor, I've struggled to find the time to write new stories.  Though my children are now grown and on their own, other responsibilities demand my time and attention.  As much as I want to write, as many stories are still bubbling and simmering in my brain, I never seem to find the time.

Then the process of editing Legacy last summer and getting it ready for digital publication really brought back the marvelous, indescribable pleasure I always got from writing.  I knew I needed to get back to it.

A few weeks ago, right around the same time I decided to order the final five volume of the Poldark saga, I resolved to take concrete steps to make more writing time.  I won't bore you with the details of that, but I feel more determined than ever to get back to doing what I love instead of just what I feel obligated to do.  It's not going to be easy, but I've actually made some progress in that direction.

What prompted all this?  I don't know.  Maybe it was that friend's comment that turned me back in the direction of Winston Graham and the Poldark books.  Maybe, maybe.

I not only purchased the last five books in the series; I also ordered the companion book Graham wrote, Poldark's Cornwall.  I've only had a few minutes to skim through it, not read anything, yet it sits here beside me, a temptation I have to resist if I'm going to take care of the day job, the dogs, the house, the everything that commands my time and energy.

With one of my other online friends I tease that it's been a series of "omens" that has been slowly propelling me back to writing, away from the frustrations of the day job that barely meets my financial needs.  From a friend's chance mention of a former publisher's obituary to a chance encounter with an old writing friend online, I laugh and say they aren't really omens and I'm not really superstitious (I'm not), but yeah, there's always that little bit of doubt, that little bit of . . . maybe.  Maybe.

My budget doesn't allow for many extravagances, but as I eased back into writing and reading and publishing, building up a library of digital editions of both old and new books, I splurged on another Poldark-related book, actor Robin Ellis's brief memoir Making Poldark.  Part of it was to recapture that visual sense, that ability to write, as someone put it, cinematographically.   And part of it was to reconnect with the sense of adventure and romance.

A year or so later, I splurged on another luxury, this time the expanded version of Ellis's memoir.  And I subscribed to his blog, admittedly out of silly romanticism while I tried to find my writing stride again, but also because there had been some other odd omens ... which of course aren't omens because I don't believe in them.

Today I woke up to a day of threatening rain.  We desperately need rain in our Arizona deserts, but that's always the case.  I had hoped maybe if it rained and I couldn't do anything else, I'd find some time to curl up with all those new (to me, at least) Poldark books.  All the obligations and responsibilities remain, of course.  They don't go away just because it's raining or because I want to read.  I still have three art shows coming up in the next few weeks that I'm not ready for.  I still have a house that needs cleaning.  I still have the day job, waiting as always.

But today there is another omen, another reminder from the cosmos or karma or fate or whatever, that what I really want to do, more than anything, is write.

The BBC is going to remake Poldark.

http://robin-ellis.net/2014/03/01/forty-years-on/

Monday, February 3, 2014

Selling words under the table

Since my earlier blog post here regarding how some sellers on Amazon and elsewhere seem to be buying positive reviews for their products, my cynicism has been growing.  More and more evidence emerges that honesty is a more and more rare commodity in the marketplace.

While I suppose it's somewhat understandable that sellers of products might be inclined to hype their  wares perhaps more than warranted, what I find most confounding is the negative attitude of buyers and potential buyers toward those who advocate honesty.

If you need to read that sentence again to make sure you understood it, feel free.  I'll wait.  ;-)

What it boils down to, though, is a pretty simple set of questions:  Do readers not want to read good books?  Do readers not know what a good book is?  Do they not care at all any more?  There is usually very little resistance or complaint when someone posts a positive review.  And as such, there are groups and organizations that purport to grant some kind of "seal of approval" to those books that pass some perhaps arbitrary criteria for professionalism.  That's all well and good, but how does the reader ever know what to avoid, if there are no negatives?

Ah, that's when it gets really dicey.  Because there's very little marketplace support for the person who dares to write a negative review, the kind that says loud and clear, "This book is utter crap."

When a book reviewer contemplates posting a negative review, she has to confront a series of Catch-22 situations, the first of which runs something like this:

Did you read the whole book, first page to last?

If yes, you read the whole book, you're permitted (!) to write a negative review, but you run the risk that you'll be accused of stupidity, because only a stupid person would keep reading a book they hated.  In other words, if you read the whole book and hated it, your negative review is invalid and a lie and you shouldn't post it.

If no, you didn't read the whole book, then you're not permitted to write a negative review because the book might get better toward the end and you'll find you really liked it.  In other words, if you didn't read the whole book, you can't be certain you really hated it, and your negative review is invalid and a lie and you shouldn't post it.

Negative reviews of anything less than the whole book aren't fair to the author.  Even if you clearly state you didn't finish the book because the characters were flat, the writing was flawed, and the story made no sense, it's not fair to the author if you review without finishing.  After all, the author wrote the whole book and somehow or other that seems to imply that the reader must read the whole book -- or shut up.


There's another Catch-22, too, related to that "fairness to the author" routine.

Are you an author?  Have you ever written a book?

If yes, you have written a book, then you are qualified to write a negative review but you shouldn't because you should understand how hard it is and should have an appreciation for what the author went through.  If you criticize her work, you're not being fair, you're not being kind, and you're not being supportive of your colleague.  If you criticize her work, you must be a jealous competitor, and you should not be allowed to review.  (By the same token, if you are an author and you post a positive review, you must be just boosting the ratings of a friend and your review is dishonest and you should not be allowed to review.)

If no, you have never written a book, then you are not qualified to write a negative review because you are unable to appreciate what the author went through to produce it.  Her effort, her dedication, her desire are far more important than your experience of 20, 30, 50 years as a reader.  If you criticize her work, you are just being mean and ignorant, because above all else, her feelings are important..


Is it a majority of readers who react this way?  Probably not.  And as for the authors of those badly-reviewed books who respond angrily to their critics, they, too, are in the minority.  Unfortunately, both groups are very vocal and, dare I say, aggressive in their behavior.  It truly takes a brave soul to go up against them.

It's even more difficult when the reviewer who dares to post a negative review is assaulted by the fangurlz and the friendsandfamily and the shills and the sockpuppets and the tit-for-tat review swapping circles.  Having been there more than once, I can tell you it's not a fun experience.

And for an author who truly does care about the marketplace and the quality of the material being published because of the effect it all has on the ability of self-publishing authors to have any hope of breaking the stranglehold of the traditional publishers, it's particularly daunting.  Is there a sense of mission?  Oh, absolutely.  Can that mission become an obsession?  Oh, absolutely.

What's the alternative?  To just let it go on?  To let the spammers and scammers and purveyors of crap to ruin the marketplace?  Maybe it is.

Or maybe we just have to be more aware of what kind of insidious disease we're up against and adopt some kind of resolution not to let it win.  Maybe we owe it to our readers, both the ones we already have and the ones we hope to have.

Because if we aren't writing for our readers, why in the ever loving hell did we ever publish it?










Sunday, December 29, 2013

Words as a medium of exchange

In light of all the usual moaning and groaning and accusation-flinging about negative reviews -- on Amazon and elsewhere -- I thought this experience of mine was particularly telling.  It's not the negative reviews you should be suspicious of; it's the positive ones.



The transaction was, I thought, a simple and straightforward one.

A few weeks before Christmas, I ordered two items from an Amazon affiliated vendor, to be given as gifts to two different people.  The items were similar, but not identical, and the slight difference was important in determining which recipient received which item.

The order arrived in plenty of time for the holidays, in excellent condition and with a couple of bonus items that were a pleasant surprise.  Unfortunately, the two primary items were packed in identical, unmarked, sealed boxes, with no way to determine which was which.  This was annoying.

My only option was to wrap the gifts and hope that they went to the correct recipients.  If not, I would have to explain the problem and then the two individuals could either swap the gifts or, if the difference wasn't significant enough to them, they could keep them as is.   It turned out that I guessed correctly and there was no problem.   But I was still annoyed and planned to post a review to that effect after the holidays.  It would have been a simple matter, it seemed to me, for the vendor just to stamp the distinguishing feature on the otherwise unmarked boxes.

I was surprised, however, to discover a separate piece of paper included in the box with the merchandise and my Amazon invoice.

It read:
Thank you for your order.  We would like you to write a product review for our [insert product #1 name].  After you have written and submitted the review we will send you a second [insert product #1 name] for FREE to the address on your invoice.  Please allow 7-14 days for the package to arrive.

And then it is signed by the vendor.

After this text is an image of a typical Amazon order page, showing the buyer's account and orders, a description of the product, and the various feedback buttons:  Return or Replace Item; Leave Seller Feedback;  Leave Package/Delivery Feedback; Write a Product Review.  Then comes more text:
We would like you to write a product review!  Product reviews are fun and simple to complete.  Under your account select the "your orders" tab, find this order and then select the button that says "write a product review".
There is a big arrow pointing to the appropriate button on the image.

And then there's a big black line under all that, followed by more text:
If for any reason you are not satisfied with this order please let us know before you write your review.  We have a complete customer satisfaction policy and believe this is an excellent 5-star product!
The note closes with their email address and phone number.


When I went to the product's page and discovered it has well over 50 5-star ratings, I began to feel a niggle of suspicion.  Had all these 5-star ratings been purchased by the seller with a promise of a another free [insert product #1 name]?

I fired off a Seller Feedback note explaining only that I would love to leave a product review, but I couldn't follow their directions because the button wasn't active.  I wrote:
Packed in the box with my order was a note from you regarding product reviews.  I would like to leave a product review but can't because the "Write a Product Review" button doesn't show on the "My Order" page.

FYI -- I was very pleased with the products and with their prompt arrival, in plenty of time for the holidays.  I did have one minor complaint/suggestion, but you'll have to figure out how to allow me to leave a genuine product review.
Within a couple of hours -- on a Sunday afternoon! -- I received the following reply via email:

Linda:

What is your minor complaint/ suggestion?

Please advise.

Thanks,
 My scamdar was pinging wildly.  So I wrote back:
Excuse me, [vendor's name redacted], but my complaint/suggestion is intended for the review, not for private discussion. 
The note included with my order says: 
"Thank you for your order.  We would like you to write a product review for our [insert product #1 name].  After you have written and submitted the review we will send you a second [insert product #1 name] for FREE to the address on your invoice.  Please allow 7-14 days for the package to arrive."
It is then followed by a screen shot of a typical Amazon order page, with an arrow pointing to the "Write a Product Review" button. 
HOWEVER -- my order page does not have that button; instead it has "Contact Seller" and "Leave Seller Feedback" buttons, neither of which leads to the product review page.
Or am I required to submit my review to you for approval before it can be posted? 

Is it possible that this vendor is essentially buying 5-star reviews with a promise of free merchandise?  Is the vendor requiring that any product reviews be vetted by them in order to "qualify" for the free merchandise?  Is this practice potentially a violation of Federal Trade Commission regulations?  Did any of those reviewers state that they had received a free [insert product #1 name] in return for their review?

I wanted to leave an unbiased, honest review of this product.  Would my review -- which would probably have been at least a 4-star -- be buried under all those glowing 5-star reviews that no one will ever know might have been "bought" with free merchandise?

Recent events in the book review community have suggested that perhaps false positive reviews are much more readily ignored by those who have a vested interest in selling books (meaning, Amazon and now GoodReads as part of Amazon); and that sales-damaging negative reviews, even though they're scrupulously honest, may put the reviewer's account and reviewing career at risk.  Writers have inveighed against the negative reviews of their books even while establishing sock puppet accounts to 5-star their own or their friends' books.  (And, to be sure, they've often 1-starred their reviewers' books whenever possible.)

With the integration of Amazon and Goodreads, I think we really have to wonder which will win out:  The quest for sales, or the honest reviewer?  I'm afraid we probably all know the answer to that question already.


After I had written that, the issue continued to develop.  The latest update:

A few hours after I had sent my email to the vendor, I received a reply which stated:

Linda:

Thanks for ordering from us and bringing to our attention that you were not completely satisfied with your purchase. 

We have refunded you the full cost of this item with shipping. This should appear in your account in the next 24 hours.

Please continue to enjoy the [product] and we appreciate any honest and fair feedback you would like to provide.  We prefer that complaints/suggestions be discussed prior to leaving product feedback and reviews (as a reply to this message or by calling us).  In this way, we have a chance to correct or explain an issue or concern.  This will insure your feedback and/or review would include how we dealt with your complaint or suggestion. 

Links and buttons for feedback and reviews are only accessible to the buyer (you).  We do not review or edit feedback or reviews before you (the buyer) post.

Sincerely, 

At that point I didn't know if they were going to refund the purchase price of both items or only the one that was mentioned in the note requesting a review.  Either way, however, I felt very uncomfortable with this.  I felt as if my silence had been purchased.  How can you complain about something you got for free?  Ultimately, the refund was processed for just the one item, which was fine.  I guess.  I'm still not comfortable with it.

I'm even less comfortable because the issue should have been handled differently.  Apparently the reason I can't leave a product review directly from my order page is because the page is designed to give the vendor the chance to fix problems, and the vendor should have known that.  In looking at my ordering history, any order that is fulfilled by Amazon -- even if purchased from another vendor -- can be reviewed directly from the order page via the "Write a Product Review" button.  If the order is not fulfilled by Amazon, then there is only the "Leave Seller Feedback" option. 

Regardless how or why the process didn't work the way it was explained with my order, I'm left wondering how many of those reviews were left by people whose opinions might have been colored by the prospect of free merchandise they received in exchange for a review.  And I also have to wonder if the offer of free merchandise violates Federal Trade Commission Regulations.  Most customers know nothing about FTC rules, or believe that those rules don't apply to individuals.  But Amazon does, and GoodReads does, and the vendors ought to know, too.

And maybe the vendor shouldn't require reviews in order to get free merchandise.  Back in the 1950s we called it Payola, and it's illegal.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

And the word for today is "overwhelmed"

That's me.  In plain and simple terms, the past six weeks or so have been overwhelming. 

There's the day job, of course, which never seems to let up.  And week-ends are barely enough to catch up on all the routine maintenance chores.  When I have week-ends, that is.

Three major arts and craft shows since the end of October have taken up three of those week-ends. 



Not only does that put me behind on the routine maintenance schedule, but I've been trying to squeeze in time to build inventory to replace what's been sold at the shows.  And I can't complain that there's been a lot to replace!  But I have five shows coming up after the first of the year, and my stock is very depleted.

Then there were the ongoing problems with the brand new heating/air conditioning system I had installed in the house last March, after the old one completely failed.  Three more visits from the service people, including one four-hour session during which they installed a whole new air-intake system, now seem to have it working properly, but of course we won't really know until summer.

The Thanksgiving holiday gave me a big break, allowed me to make up for some of that lost time, but I was also dealing with a major vehicle issue -- yes, the transmission went out, again -- which took time and energy and a large amount of cash, while also causing a horrendous amount of stress.

Now December is fully upon us.  I'm anticipating a holiday visit from my daughter and her family, so there are arrangements to be made, quarters to be prepared for them to stay in, and various activities to schedule.  Let's not even talk about trying to shop for gifts or put up decorations, because if we talk about that, I'll be even more overwhelmed.

So no, I haven't been writing, except for the occasional post on GoodReads or BookLikes.  I'm still settling in at the latter, still trying to catalog all the books, still trying to figure out the site and how to decorate my blog there.  Nor have I even been reading very much. 

All of that is going to change.

I'm going to make it change.

You just watch and see.  ;-)