Musings on user reviews

Reviews are the lifeblood of e-commerce. Without the ability to actually examine the product for themselves consumers are forced to make a judgement based partly on the description of the product, the reputation of the vendor, and the reviews of the item. Yet often these reviews are rife with ideological crusaders, reviews for sale, and odd design choices in the review systems themselves.

As an indy author this is painfully obvious for me at the moment. I have to solicit reviews on amazon because most people who read my work prefer to review it on Goodreads. I have even been tarred and feathered by fake reviewers looking to lower their average score in order to seem legitimate when they give 5 star ratings to their clients. The review system is annoying, and yet I need it to move books and reach potential readers.

The first and largest problem in the review system is that it often reads like any other comment section anywhere else in the internet. I am not popular enough to have this problem yet, but it does annoy the heck out of me when I am reading reviews of games or books and people are using the review system for popular products to push their personal views rather than actually review the product. This can be a fine line, to be sure: should Lovecraft be docked stars because he is racist? for example. Mind you in most cases it is not. I’m sure you have all seen reviews like this, if not go look at the reviews on your favorite (non classic) popular computer game or book. Some are legit, some are lazy, and some people are there to make a point that has little to do with the product itself. I’m not sure how to fix this, yet.

Fake reviews are more sensational. There is a thriving cottage industry in selling fake reviews of all sorts of products, as well as companies putting up their own fake reviews of their products. Since reviews still help drive sales, there is a real economic incentive to cheat if you can get away with it. As I noted these ‘reviewers’ often give crap ratings to low profile indy authors in order to even out all of the five star reviews they give to their clients so that they look like a tough reviewer.

The review systems themselves are sometimes even more of a problem. Amazon, the most important reviewer for my career, has some quirks that annoy the crap out of me. They do not amalgamate reviews from all of their secondary sites on my book, even though the product is exactly the same on amazon.com as it is on amazon.ca or amazon.uk. People who have written reviews for me sometimes do not get them approved from various reasons (some are legitimate I suppose, sorry mom!). Even worse is that Amazon owns Goodreads and could easily show the goodreads reviews on a particular title, like Steam shows the metacritic score, but they do not and thus compete with themselves for reviews. I don’t know too many people who are willing to review a product on multiple sites without prodding. This is not to mention the problems with the scoring systems themselves and even how ratings drive searches.

One solution is professional reviewers, people whose job it is to review a product for a trusted third party. Unfortunately in many arenas Professional reviews are missing in action, or lost in the noise. Even if they are easy to find, a professional reviewer often wants different things than the average reader. This can lead to authors skewing their work to solicit favourable opinions from elite reviewers. This is nothing new, but it is still annoying; authors should be free to write for their intended audience, ideally, rather than jump through hoops for publishers and reviewers. Still, hunting down high profile reviewers who will like your work has been a piece of advice that many of my peers have given me.

For now, I rely on fans and organic growth while examining other possibilities.

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Front Cover Thursday? (I’m reaching here…)

Here it is, the cover for Bloodlust: The Blades of Khazak Khrim

Bloodlust: The Blades of Khazak Khrim Cover

Bloodlust: The Blades of Khazak Khrim Cover

Pretty awesome, eh? Dan Barclay delivers as usual!

Here are a some of the mockup covers we went through.

thumb3

This is a little discussion piece, basically a mockup that Dan did while we chatted, highlighting the basic composition.

Front-cover

This is Dan’s first attempt at the background, pretty much nailed it on the first go. I like the water/foam effect, and the blue is very striking.

TBoKK-Front-cover-3

Here we are with the first attempt at putting the swords and background together. In this version the swords just overwhelm the background, which is not what we wanted.

TBoKK-Front-cover-1

This version is one of the three versions that Dan tried before coming up with the final cover. You can see he is experimenting with various tints and transparencies. Also note that there are only 11 swords, whereas in the final version we have 12, placed like points on a clock.

Book should be out tomorrow folks.  Let me know if you want a review copy.

The Hugo Awards: The Money Angle

I wanted to write something about the Hugo awards, but I don’t really know enough about them to contribute meaningfully to the discussion one way or another. I have never been to Worldcon, and as a self-published author who flies well below the radar I don’t expect to see any of my book up there anytime soon, nor do feel bad about that. I’m just here to write and entertain.

Personally I dislike both the extreme right, and extreme left getting involved in this debate. North American directional politics, fed by the twenty-four hours “news” channels and the pundit blogs, is capable of very little other than bringing rage and ruin to everything it touches right now. I hate to think that in the midst of the massive boom in genre fiction that this ugliness could turn people off, and possibly even stunt the growth of SF/F.

What interests me most about the whole debate is that none of the articles that I have read about the whole Kerfuffle, most of which are very good, none cover the economic aspect of winning an award.

I would not buy a book simply because it was a Hugo award winner. However, if I was on the fence about a book and saw that it won an award, that would make me more likely to buy it. An award is an indication of quality, at the very least.

Perhaps more importantly winning (or even being short-listed) an award acts as additional exposure acts for both the work and the author. It will not push a niche intellectual work to bestseller status, to be sure, but I am confident that winning an award, especially a prestigious award, will expose a book to new readers and elevate sales in almost all cases.

Many authors are ego driven enough to value the award above the sales that it generates. Some writers, however, are far more motivated by sales figures and really don’t care how they get them. Attaching “Hugo” to their name and book will get those extra sales and so they have an economic motive, regardless of what ideology they might be espousing to justify their actions.

So while there is an ideological battle here, which is very sad, there is also the simple fact that by gaming the system the Sad Puppies have gained publicity and increased sales. The people who are outraged by their actions are not in their intended readership and I suspect that they, or their publishers, know it. The very nature of their very public campaign, and the amount of publicity it generates for their works, win or lose, demonstrates that at least some of them are motivated by sales as well as ideology.

Making money is not a bad thing, of course, but while winning an award increases sales, battles like this can damage how people view the award, which degrades the value of the endorsement that the award represents.

Unfortunately, it is a hard problem to fix. Every system can be gamed, and as George RR Martin brilliantly stated changing the rules to stop this behaviour only feeds into the narrative of a liberal conspiracy at the Hugos promoted by the Sad Puppies. Incidentally this will get like minded people to buy more of their books as well. Readers will often support writers they feel are being persecuted, as I found out when this happened. After I complained, readers picked up on the attack and sales increased.

Which means that there is also a possible economic motive behind complaining about being persecuted, which can get people on your side and sell more books… 😦

P.S: I don’t like identity politics, but people who form factions to promote their works based on not being part of a certain clique are only engaging in reactionary identity politics.

Blowing Your Own Horn: The Self Promotion Thing

CASTLE UNDER SIEGE-ILLUSTRATION

Trebuchets or Towers today boys?

My new book, Bloodlust: Red Glory is out as of last Wednesday, so I am knee-deep in self-promotion. Today I started three seperate Facebook campaigns, one linking to the new book, one linking to Bloodlust: A Gladiator’s tale, and one linking to my author central page, which is looking rather snazzy, actually.

These follow a small series of ad I have placed with various sites that specialize in promoting eBooks, mostly lower budget stuff. I can’t quite justify the cost of Bookbub yet.

The basic goal is, as always, to get my books out into as many hands as possible, hopefully running up the lists in Amazon.

My big failure thus far is not getting Bloodlust: A Gladiator’s Tale perma-free on amazon. This is apparently quite effective according to several of the authors that I talk to who have transitioned to writing full time in the last year or two. The loss lead on the first book in a series is made up for by a very large boost to sales in subsequent books. Apparently there are quite a few websites catering to eBook enthusiasts that automatically search out and link perma-free books, which act as an advertising catalyst of sorts. In my case, getting Amazon to drop the price down has been met with silence, thus far. Sadly KDP only gives me 5 free days out of 90, which does not seem to do it. Mind you I miss out on even those five days, by being off KDP to try to get Amazon to price match. Charybdis and Scylla 😛

Of my other efforts the Facebook adds already look promising.

  • Pricing is reasonable. You can set the price for your ad to as little as 1$/day and still get a decent theoretical reach.
  • You target the adds based on what people like. For Bloodlust I am trying the conjunction of people who “like” Fantasy Literature, Gladiators, and a few other key terms. I could have targeted base on similar authors, or even activities that people engage in. With each modification I add it shows me an estimate of the reach, making it easy to estimate the crossover appeal of various “likes”. If it isn’t just smoke and mirrors, then it is a lovely system.
  • The metrics tracking is very good. It shows the number of licks, and breaks down how much you are paying per engagement.  Previously people have complained about fake engagements, with artificial clicks, but in my case I can easily compare the clicks to sales on my page to gauge the effectiveness of the add.
  • Facebook saves each campaign, the terms, and the audience you were targeting, making it very easy to iterate on effective campaigns. If these ads pay off for me, It will be very easy for me to recreate that success and ramp it up. It is a flexible, intuitive system, and if it actually works I will gladly put more money into it.

Of course, this is the first time I have released a book at this time of year. Do people buy books on Valentine’s day weekend? I have no way of measuring that against previous successes and failures until the data is in.

Self-promotion is the bogeyman of self-published authors. Some are brilliant at it. Most of us would rather just be writing though. Traditional publishers could easily make the case that they offer a much better promotional machine that can free up an author’s time, but all of the Fantasy authors that I follow who are traditionally published engage in a heck of a lot of of self-promotion. Patrick Rothfuss, Brian McLellan, Mark Lawrence, and Micheal J Sullivan seem to put a lot of effort into getting the word out there. The cynical side of me wonders if their publishers are riding their efforts ( and those of their fans), while the rational side of me puts forth that they would not stay with the publishers if they did not feel they were getting their money’s worth.

I don’t like blowing my own horn. But the reality of self-publishing is that I have to, at least until I have a legion of fans to help out with that. In that regard perhaps the best advertisements that I tried this time round were free books to a few new beta readers, and to a fan who asked me for a copy since Red Glory was hard to get at a reasonable price in his country. Only time will tell I suppose.

 

Image Change: A New Cover For Bloodlust: A Gladiator’s Tale.

Happy Canadian Thanksgiving! I am full of Turkey and pie, and generally pretty zonked. Domains of the Chosen Book Four is moving along nicely, and in preparation for wider release Dan and I decided to redo the cover of Bloodlust: A Gladiator’s Tale to match the more popular style of Bloodlust: Will to Power.

Domains of the Chosen Book One. Original Cover.

Domains of the Chosen Book One. Original Cover.

This is the very first cover that Dan designed for Bloodlust: A Gladiator’s Tale. It is a little blurred out because of a custom re-size, but you can see the important details. The cover works quite well, especially on trade paperback. At the time we were happy with it. It is distinctive, it does not prejudice the reader with images of the characters, and it conveys meaning to anyone who reads the book.

Some people like it, some people did not.

For Bloodlust: Will to Power I let Dan have a freer hand. This is what he came up with.

The Nearly Complete Cover for Book 2. Points to anyone who can spot the differences.

The Nearly Complete Cover for Book 2. Points to anyone who can spot the differences.

This style is less metallic/shiny, and more grainy. Lookt at the lines on the Lion’s mane and the Scorpion. It is one of the Woodcut styles that Dan has developed over the years. People really loved the final version of this cover. Most importantly it looks good as a thumbnail, a full size image, and a physical image on a paperback book. After some thought, we decided to change the cover for book one to emulate this style.

The Retouched Cover for Bloodlust: A Gladiator's Tale.

The Retouched Cover for Bloodlust: A Gladiator’s Tale.

Not only does this cover emulate the style of the Bloodlust: Will to Power cover, it also has a few changes for clarity.

  • The sub-title has expanded. A Gladiator’s tale is now bigger and more readable.
  • Domains of The Chosen: Book 1 is now on the cover, clearly calling out that the book is part of a series.
  • The texture of the cover is more visible. Dan was disappointed that black leather texture he used did not pop on the original cover. He added a digital light source to make it more visible at the top, fading down into black at the bottom.

Not bad, eh? If you prefer the new cover and have an ebook, just update the version via amazon (why it does not prompt you to update is beyond me).

Cheers, and happy Turkey day for my Canadian friends.

Title Change for Book Three

After much soul searching, more like agonized dawdling I suppose, I have decided to change the name of Warbound: The Shield Maiden to Bloodlust: The Shield Maiden. Many readers are not connecting Warbound with the first two Domains of the Chosen Books. This is entirely my fault, as most of my beta readers suggested that I keep the name Bloodlust for consistency. I should have listened, but I was focused on getting the book out and not thinking enough about branding issues.

Hopefully the switch does not cause any problems. Here is what the new cover looks like. It will release on the 16th. If you have the old cover, don’t worry about switching over, the book itself remains unchanged.

Not a huge change, but it is still a mistake on my part.

Not a huge change, but it is still a mistake on my part.

If this does cause a problem for anyone, let me know and I will send you a file in any format you choose.

 

Domains of the Chosen Facebook Ad

My Domains of the Chosen series is three years, and three novels old. Readers who enjoy superheroic action, strange monsters, explosive magic, and political intrigue should definitely give these books a try. Read the excerpts on Amazon or try my free short story, Bloodlust: The Great Games, on Smashwords.

Click on any of the books to follow a link to amazon.com.

Domains of the Chosen book one.

Domains of the Chosen book one.

Bloodlust follows the career of Gavin, an unlikely Gladiator, and five friends.

Bloodlust: Will to Power

Domains of the Chosen book two.

The second Bloodlust novel follows the six Gladiators as they seek their place in the world, leading up the Grand Championships.

Bloodlust TSM cover

Domains of the Chosen Book Three

The Shield Maiden takes the action outside of the arena, following a former Gladiatrix as she enlists in the Legions to uphold a family legacy. Hi folks, I’m promoting this as a facebook ad, let me know what you think!