Reviewing (And Being Reviewed By) Other Authors

–Berthold Gambrel

In our latest chat, we discuss authors reviewing other authors, etiquette for rating books, whether writing is like baking, and more.

One thing I didn’t get a chance to say during the chat was that I always appreciate reviews from other authors, because they know what’s involved with writing and publishing a book, and are in a position to give more meaningful feedback. I know this because of how much better of a reviewer I became after I had gone through the process of writing a few books myself.

Also, there are good negative reviews and bad negative reviews. A thoughtful, constructive, well-written negative review can really help an author improve. (A bad negative review is one that criticizes the author rather than the book, complains about the physical condition of the book, the delivery time, etc.  🙂 )

“Harsh Writing Advice”

The other day, this phrase was going around on Twitter. The original tweet was as follows:


Your writer friends are also your competition.


(Inserting a screen grab didn’t work, and I didn’t want to embed the actual tweet–no need to call out the author by name.)

Does this sentiment speak to an uncomfortable truth about our beloved craft? Is writing ultimately a brutal, cutthroat business? When you finally finish your book, will all your friends betray you in a ruthless and nihilistic struggle for power, like the end of Far Cry 2?

Okay, maybe I’m exaggerating for the purpose of mocking this tweet. It’s not fair really; the offender already got dragged mercilessly for this. And, in some very broad sense, his advice isn’t entirely wrong.

There’s nothing wrong with friendly competition. When I sit down to write, I am competing with every other writer–I’m trying to write better stories, create more compelling characters, capture ideas that no one else has captured, after all.

But the competition ends when I step away from the manuscript. Competing against your fellow writers when you’re actually writing is just and proper; but competing against them in public forums, or even on such crass metrics as sales or reviews, is simply not allowable. It strikes at the integrity of the craft itself.

When I’m not actively writing, I’m trying to promote the craft–because if no one is reading anything, then there’s not much point in writing, is there?

It’s similar to sports. Every quarterback in the NFL is competing with the others. But each one also has respect for his rivals, and for the game itself. When playing against one another, each will try to play better than the other. But when, say, talking about to the press, each will immediately state his respect for his counterparts.

At the risk of being repetitive, not only are we competing for the attention of people who read books, but we are also competing against every other form of entertainment. 

You think the tweet above was harsh? My advice is remorselessly brutal. We are peeling back the thin veneer of civilization and revealing the true Conrad-esque dog-eat-doggery that is the business of telling people stories.

Or maybe I’m being over-dramatic again. Anyway, though; the point is that most people don’t read because they have other, easier entertainment options available. And there’s no way you can make reading a book easier than watching a movie.

Now we are starting to understand the true nature of writing. We may be intensely competitive among ourselves, when practicing our craft, but must present a united front to the outside world, in the face of the challenge from other, rival art forms.

I think of writers as a sort of order of monks. Like the Jedi or something. Being a writer, in an age of a million temptations, requires discipline and focus. We writers can rightfully take pride in choosing to devote ourselves to an art that requires saying “no” to doing something easier.

Your writer friends are your competition, yes. But they are also your comrades and your teachers and your readers.

A Further Point about Advertising

In one of our recent video chats, I said that indie authors should not pay for advertising. Susan disagreed with me, and cited her own positive experience with advertising.

So, let me correct myself: I wouldn’t say that indie authors should never pay for advertising. If you have the funds and the inclination, by all means, pay for advertising. As Susan explains, it absolutely can work.

I’m writing this for a specific group of authors: those who don’t really want to advertise, but feel like they ought to. I’m not saying you absolutely shouldn’t; I’m just giving you permission not to.

Advertising is key in markets where there are a few big firms that are competing against each other. (The technical word for this is “oligopoly.”) Coke vs. Pepsi, Sony vs. Microsoft… big companies that compete with branding need advertising.

We in the indie book biz are not big companies. Advertising is important in markets where there are a few sellers and a bunch of buyers. I don’t think anyone can claim that describes the indie book market.

Obviously, getting readers is important. But what’s the best way to do that? I’m not convinced it’s advertising. I’ve had a lot more success finding readers from people who read my blog than I have from advertising. In general, social media has proven to be a far better way of reaching readers than advertising has.

And there’s another issue with advertising books: the most successful ads will tend to be for books that have the most eye-catching covers. And while many indie authors are capable of writing better books than the big publishers sell, they are not always able to afford the same level of cover design. So, unless you happen to also be an excellent designer yourself, or know someone who is, the deck is always going to be stacked against you in advertising your book.

Again, if you have the funds and feel confident that advertising is something that will help sell your books, then you absolutely should do it. I’m just saying that if you’re hesitant, or if you don’t have a lot to spend on it, don’t feel like you have to.

Pep Talks II

[This is a generalized adaptation of the thought process I go through whenever I wonder if there’s any point in writing. It is my answer to the question posed by Mark in this post.–Berthold Gambrel.]

Why should you write indie fiction? You’re competing not only against all the other authors in the world–past and present–but against all forms of entertainment. The grand spectacle of a Hollywood blockbuster or the rich production values of a TV series are quite a daunting prospect for a lone writer to compete with. And yet here we are.

Maybe it will help to redefine the products. We aren’t producing “books.” We’re producing stories. This puts me in the same business as Disney and HBO, and we all know who is winning in that market.

But while this is the market for stories, there is still some room for differentiation. A blockbuster CGI action picture demands very little imagination. “A picture,” as the old saw says, “is worth a thousand words.” That’s because words by themselves take imagination to compile. A movie, by definition, takes less.

So we can create a tiered system of stories by classifying how much imagination each type of story demands of its audience. This could be a fascinating exercise to carry out in detail, but for now, I’m just interested in the general point.

What is imagination? Imagination takes work. Imagination is like a muscle; you need to exercise it, or it becomes weak and ineffectual. But when you use it and train it, it can accomplish amazing things. (Also, like muscle, you can use artificial stimulants to enhance it, but this is certainly not recommended. Don’t be the Barry Bonds of imagination.)

Imagination, then, requires discipline. Anyone can watch a movie. To read a book requires putting forth more active effort. And to write a book… well! 

This is another way of differentiating our product: whereas Hollywood is selling something that is easy and fun, books are challenging but rewarding. Both McDonald’s and GNC are selling stuff you can eat, but they aren’t really competing for the same customers.

I like the analogy with health food, not least because it implies that reading is more than just a pastime–it is a lifestyle. A way of being, in fact.

Let us pause here and ask: do we expect there to be more people at McDonald’s or GNC? I think the answer is self-evident. We can no more expect books to win a popularity contest with modern media than we can expect to see children clamoring for their parents to take them to GNC for some turmeric pills. 

There’s no easy way to say it: writing books cannot be used as a get-rich-quick scheme. Or even a get-rich-slow scheme. It is true that some people have indeed gotten rich from writing books, and it is likely true that more people will do so in the future, but the probabilities of doing so are not in the writer’s favor. Some people get rich playing at casinos, too–but most people don’t, and moreover, the system is designed to ensure that it stays that way.

The audience for books is smaller and more discerning than the audience for other entertainment forms. They are therefore harder to win over, and generate less gross revenue. These are just the facts. Best to look them square in the eye and accept them. 

The world of books is a lifestyle, a mental practice, a philosophy of life. And like many another philosophy, it must begin with the renunciation of material wealth. But don’t worry; you don’t need to sell all your possessions and live in the desert. In fact, you can be as rich as you want. Just obliterate any mental connection you may have drawn between books and money. 

I understand; I really do. It’s nice when a reader pays you money for a book. It’s nicer if a million readers pay you a buck each. We all would like that. I would like that.

But there is no way we can make that happen. At best, it may happen by chance. Therefore, we must focus solely on what we can make happen. This is not a new idea. Marcus Aurelius was saying similar things back in the 2nd century. And his book is still being read today.

I would not exchange being read by Carrie Rubin, Pat Prescott, Phillip McCollum, Noah Goats, Lydia Schoch, Audrey Driscoll, Joy Spicer, Andrey Popov, Laurie Boris, Lorinda Taylor, Eileen Stephenson, Mark Paxson, Kevin Brennan, Geof Cooper, A.C. Flory, Richard Pastore, Amit Herlekar, ESXIII, Tammy Schoch, Tammie Painter, and the rest of you wonderful people for being read by a million unknown readers, even ones who paid $10 a book, because the relationship with my readers would be purely a one-sided thing.

We would like to have more readers. But we can’t control the number of readers. What we can control is our relationship with our existing readers. Many writers have observed that it feels like their books are only read by other authors. This is assuredly true. This is not a problem. This is exactly what we want. 

Writing is not like the movies, where a few people make them so a lot of people can watch them.  It’s not a client-server approach, but more of a peer-to-peer architecture. It only takes one person to read or to write a book. 

How great an advantage is this for the writer! A film director cares more about what other film directors think of their films than about what audiences or critics or even studio execs think of them. The audiences, the critics, the execs–these are all accessories which must be pleased to some extent in order to finance the production of films. But the true artist draws the most prestige from peer opinion. 

Like I said: a state of mind. Do not dwell on the disadvantages with which our craft has burdened us! Rather, see what hidden advantages we have had all along.

Perhaps you’re still not convinced. 

I don’t blame you. It’s all very well to talk a big game about the satisfaction in making one’s own art, finding joy in the creative process etc. but when you look out and see other people sitting in mansions paid for by writing books that aren’t, by the standard of anyone with some modicum of taste, any good–well, it’s easy to get depressed.

My goal here is not to persuade you that the facts are other than what they appear to be. The facts are exactly what they appear to be: it is very, very difficult for a writer to attract a large enough audience to make them a substantial amount of money. When it does happen, it is usually a result of pure luck rather than anything the writer themselves did. 

But you sort of already knew this, and yet you’re still writing. Maybe you were in denial about it, maybe you thought you were going to be the one who gets a lucky break, maybe you thought you knew something the others didn’t. All three of these things could certainly have been said of me, at one point or another.

Meanwhile, the set of books to read grows larger, and the set of available readers shrinks, meaning the odds against you get longer and longer with the passing of each day. If you haven’t succeeded already, what makes you think you are going to?

You see, I am not purely a naive optimist. I can plumb the depths of despair found in the bleakest authorial pessimism as well as soaring to the heights of sunny pie-in-the-sky rhetoric about the value of art. Neither are fully accurate assessments, but both must be observed and appreciated before we can begin to formulate a plan for succeeding as an indie author in the 21st century.

The plan first and foremost requires focusing on reading and writing as a way of crafting worlds. There is a kind of duality inherent in stories told through the written word because, as mentioned earlier, they involve both the author and the reader. In other words, my vision of your book is not the same as your vision of your bookWe see the same words, but we imagine them in different ways.

Thus, writer and reader are in a sense collaborators. It’s not an equal collaboration, though, since writing the book is far more work than reading it once it’s done. However, if the readers are also people who have written books, they at least can sympathize with what the author went through.

Recognizing this, indie authors should seek to be read by other indie authors. This is the best way of maximizing the potential of written works. 

Now, this might immediately make you think of practice of review swapping, which is officially forbidden when an indie author is trying to monetize their work. Again, we hearken back to the casino analogy–The House has certain rules, and these rules exist for the benefit of the House, not the players. If a player starts to win too much, the House will take care to make that stop.

You see how playing the game for money constrains us. Playing instead for sheer aesthetic interest is less lucrative, but it is also more fun. And it allows us to form communities of writers and readers organized around anything we’re interested in. 

H.P. Lovecraft, whose name is now synonymous with a sub-genre of horror, organized such a community back in the 1920s and ’30s. “The Lovecraft circle,” as it is now known, can be credited with popularizing an entire style–an artistic movement that has given us much good fiction, interesting art, and plenty of memes.

The cynic will note that Lovecraft died in poverty. So he did, but he did not have the internet. If we, enlightened citizens of the 21st century with a miraculous worldwide electronic network cannot do better than a bigot who liked to pretend he lived in the 18th century did with pen and paper, then we are just not serious about this. 

Today’s strange eccentricity of a select few is tomorrow’s must-have fashion. Curiously, the groups that exert the most influence over trends and tastes seem to be the ones who care least about them.  This seems odd, but makes sense when you think about it: if you are going to create a new artistic movement, the first step must be to stop following any current ones.

The advantage of the indie author lies in the ability to communicate easily with their peers. If there is a defining quality of the indie book world, it lies with its sense of community, with understanding and appreciating the duality of reading and writing. As Noah Goats observed in his indie publishing magnum opus, The Unpublishables, books are both walls and bridges; they both keep people apart and bring them together.

Indie authorship is a view of the world, a philosophy, a practice. There is no better term than the Chinese concept of gong fu–which may be roughly translated as “work practiced expertly.” As so often happens, the Western world has corrupted the meaning of this term. But contrary to what Carl Douglas may say, everybody is not gong fu fighting. Indeed, the nature of gong fu is that not everybody can do it. The art lies in the admiration of those who can.

As for material rewards or even mere popularity, are these things really the reason you write? Maybe in some cases, but I suspect not many. Here is the fusion of the optimistic and the pessimistic visions of the world of indie writing into one, presenting at last the true picture. One does not become an author to make money but to share a vision.

If there are few with whom that vision may be shared, that is hardly reason to lose heart. Human beings, even writers, are social animals, but our sociability does not scale infinitely. Though the material rewards of being the poet of the masses may be great, there is something in the human soul which prizes the understanding of a few kindred souls more dearly still. We are not meant to please the world, but to please our family–where “family” is interpreted broadly as simply those whose opinions we value. 

Or even, if necessary, only ourselves. The age of the internet has encouraged our tendency to seek external validation from the acclaim of others. This makes it all too easy for us to sink into despair when we see we are not performing up to the standard the world has set for us. But this phenomenon itself is not new. It existed in Marcus Aurelius’ time, too. I understand if you don’t want to trust me, a random nut with a blog. But Marcus is widely regarded as “the last good emperor of Rome.” Ave ImperatorI leave you with his verdict on the topic:

“Set thyself in motion, if it is in thy power, and do not look about thee to see if any one will observe it; nor yet expect Plato’s Republic: but be content if the smallest thing goes on well, and consider such an event to be no small matter.”