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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Reading and Reviews

This has been an eventful week for me, and I wanted to share some of the good stuff.

First up, popping my cherry at the Chi Series Guelph. Public reading has been low on my list as an indy author. Hell, public anything rarely rates high on my priorities, unless it involves politics or written discussion.

Nonetheless, a friend invited me to read at a local event in Guelph, held at the Red Brick Cafe, just down the street from the apartment where I wrote my first two books.

I have to say that while I was nervous, the experience turned out to be very positive, with the added bonus of meeting some lovely people and talking with other authors, face to face. The experienced convinced me that I should stop acting like a hermit and attend a few more events.

And now for a common complaint you hear from authors: that most dreaded of subjects, the Amazon Review.

This week Amazon saw fit to take down my mother’s review of my first book (in which she identified herself as my mother and gave it a less that perfect 3/5). I have no problem with that — Amazon does say in the TOS that relatives should not be reviewing each other’s works, but it does annoy me that a small group of them took the time to mock her before taking down the review.

Mom, it was an honour to have your review.

That aside, the issue did get me to sit down and take a look at my amazon reviews. I have sold a fair number of books, but have very few reviews on Amazon — almost an order of magnitude less than the reviews that I have on Goodreads. This hinders sales a little, I think, but mostly it seems that the review system needs to be reworked and properly incentived. Amazon should do more to solicit reviews from readers or take a page from Steam and post the book’s Goodreads score as a secondary indicator, which Steam does with Metacritic. Amazon owns Goodreads, after all.

I also think that all of a book’s reviews should show up on its page, instead of being divided by region of purchase. More information is better, especially if it is well organized. Extra review scores would help authors and readers and an increased number of reviews helps weed out fakers and reviewers for hire.

Just some thoughts, cheer!

Shades of Obsession & Steampunk Themes: What Fantasy Writers Can Learn From Bloodborne

Madman's Knowledge. an item from Bloodborne

Madman’s Knowledge. an item from Bloodborne

Last Sunday, I waxed poetic about Bloodborne in my review of the game. Today I am going to relate that to genre fiction, and Steampunk in general.

My view of Steampunk is that. as we move away from the industrial age and into the information age, it will become more and more popular. Bloodborne represents From Software’s foray into Steampunk/Industrial age fantasy, and I feel it is a smashing success. The company was previously known for the Demons Souls/Dark Souls series, which is medieval and high fantasy.

Bloodborne takes place in Yharnam, a rambling gothic city with magnificent skyline full of cathedrals and high towers. The lower streets are, of course, choked with debris and narrow, but the heights of the city, when you get to them, are magnificent and definitely not medieval. Only the Church, the old sections of the town, and a few other places hint at the feudal age from which the place must have grown.

The weapons and attire in Bloodborne also speak of the industrial age, as well as to older traditions. Alongside axes and swords we have various forms of firearms, and even some reminiscent of the late medieval combination weapons like a gun spear and a pistol/rapier combination weapon. The guns are generally wielded in the off-hand and are used both offensively and defensively to interrupt and stagger enemies, while the main hand melee weapons do most of the damage.

When I first started playing games the idea of a gun being used as a secondary weapon would have induced seas of foaming nerdrage. People just didn’t like mixing guns and fantasy back then, and when they did they often felt the need to show the primacy of the gun. I blame that scene in the first Indiana Jones where Harrison Ford is confronted by a scimitar wielding fanatic, who pulls of an amazing kata, and just shoots the guy. In Fantasy guys with swords coexist with guys with magic, so guns must be better than magic too, right? That attitude has eroded over the years, thankfully, and we now see guns treated more or less as any other weapon and even see enchanted guns cropping up more and more.

The monsters in Bloodborne are also drawn from industrial age sources. Vampires, werewolves, and things that would be at home in the tales of the brothers Grim or Lovecraft seem to be the primary inspirations for the creature’s visuals, although they are all tied together by a common thread, thematically. Instead of a knight facing dragons and orcs, you take the role of a hunter cleansing a city of monsters, acting as a kind of pest control really.

But you all know about that, I expect. Sreampunk is on the rise as Fantasy expends and becomes more popular. Bloodborne has many of the cool trappings of Steampunk, but what does it do so well that can we learn from it for our games and writing?

  • The Clash Between Reason and Mysticism: We can frequently see this in modern society, unfortunately, but in previous centuries this was a deep and abiding battle. Galileo was condemned for “vehement suspicion of heresy” and spent the last decade of his life under house arrest.  Darwin was even more vilified then than he is today. The Church was a real political power in the early parts of the industrial age, it was fading compared to its dominance in the feudal age, but it still had real strength. Bloodeborne does an admirable job of showing the clash between mysticism and science as the clerics of Yharnam and the various schools of thought that grow up around the study of blood clash in the background and backstory.
  • Resource Based Themes: The Industrial age is deeply concerned with the exploitation of natural resources, almost in the same way that the feudal age was concerned with land and agriculture. In Bloodborne the resource in question, the trade on which the Town of Yharnam was founded is the Healing Blood. The Healing Blood is a substance that can cure disease and give long life. It has many other miraculous properties that one can discover in the game, and many theories have developed around it. Like any good industrial age story, the resource being exploited also has flaws. You discover fairly quickly that the Healing Blood has the side effect of turning people who use it into monsters when the moon is full. [SPOILER] Ultimately you discover that the Healing Blood is basically taken from a Lovecraft-like entity that was discovered below the city, and that some see the side effects as evolutionary instead of monstrous. Reminds me of the mixed blessings of oil, coal, nuclear power, and so on.
  • Obsession and the quest for Knowledge: While the clerics of Yharnam and the scholars often seem at odds, they have many things in common. Most importantly they nearly always seem to end up as victims of their various obsessions. This is the deepest theme of Bloodborne and one that is pulled off brilliantly. Often these days I see scientists or mystics portrayed as bumbling idiots who cannot but help to go too far, because too much knowledge is bad mmmmkay? Jurassic Park, Age of Ultron, and Ex Machina from this year all leap to mind as having plots that are driven by people who seek knowledge and cause havoc by doing so. Bloodborne also has this, in spades, but the player is also a knowledge seeker and the game treads the razor edge and condemns obsession over curiosity and love of knowledge, which is a much more accurate view. The endings of the game conform to this theme very nicely.

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.

 

Glorious Cover Teasers, fourth edition.

With the impending release of Bloodlust: Red Glory, it is time for a cover preview. This time I am organized enough to walk you through the process with a series of draft mockups, courtesy of Daniel Barclay.

Red_Glory_1

Red_Glory_2

I often like to represent the characters as icons on the covers. With Red Glory, having a larger cast of characters made that impossible (or rather, busy and ugly). On the other hand one way of looking at the book is that the central character is the Grand Championships. Following that line of thought the cover is made up of white sand, representing the fighting grounds and Golden Laurels, representing the coveted prize of the tournament.

I like the weight of the first option better. The Grand Championships dominate the lives of the people of the Domains and a heavier set of laurels conveys that better.

Dan thought the background was too bland, so we decided to work on that next.

Red_Glory_3

I really liked this one. The laurels streaming blood and staining the pristine sands. Quite an image, and highly appropriate for such a brutal event. We decided on a bit more texture on the laurel and thinner blood streams. I asked for the blue binding to be changed to royal purple.

Red_Glory_4

This is very close, but not quite there. Notice that Dan changed the Domains of the Chosen Tagline on the bottom to yellow so you can actually see it. Also of note are the filler bars on either side of –Red Glory–, which he added to kill whitespace.We decided to add a drop of blood and Dan added some special magic:

Red_Glory_5_Final

I like it. It is gloriously overstated: grand, vicious, and bloody, much like the Great Games themselves. Once again, my thanks go out to the talented Mr Barclay, who can take a simple concept and really make it stand out. Certainly beats trying to stand out with another cover of a dude in a cloak.

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.

On Recommending Fantasy Books.

Recommendations?

Recommendations?

It used to be that Fantasy was a much narrower, and smaller, Genre. I could get away with recommending my personal favourite fantasy novels and not have to worry about leaving someone out. If someone didn’t like one of Tolkien, Moorcock, Fritz Lieber, Ursula K. Le Guin, or whatever you might be reading at the time, they probably would not be spending much time with the genre.

Since I started reading, fantasy has exploded as a genre, forming distinct sub-genres, mating with others genres, and branching out beyond medieval and classical world backgrounds. What this means is that people have far more to choose from, and I feel that I can no longer safely recommend just what I enjoy.

Fandom is a strange beast. A true fan often feels so passionately about their favourite obsession, that they will recommend it to everyone. As an author this works to my benefit, since word of mouth drives sales, and more importantly it refreshes me when I talk to people really enjoy my work. However, not every work is for every person. This is a difficult lesson to learn for some. When I was young, I simply assumed that people who did not like what I liked were lacking in some fashion. I liken it to pop culture in high school: people who have not developed their own personal sense of taste enough tend to gravitate toward the popular. This later acts a springboard into more specific likes. One might start with Justin Bieber or Britney Spears and end at Mozart, Led Zeppelin, and/or Sinatra. Not a perfect view of the process, but you get the idea.

True fans often forget that others do not have the same tastes as they do. You might absolutely love and understand every little bit about The Gardens of the Moon, or The Name of The Wind and defend them to the hilt, but they are not for everyone. People who don’t like what I like are not (necessarily) deficient: they simply have their own tastes. Fantasy is now diverse enough as a genre to accommodate a diverse readership, some with very different tastes. So how does one go about recommending a book without being boorish? Here are a few suggestions.

Simple Suggestions:

  • Recommend my book: I had to try.
  • Recommend your favourites, but qualify: If you are really enthusiastic about a book, by all means recommend it. Just don’t force it on someone. Don’t tell them they have to read it if they like the genre. Instead tell them why you like the book. Don’t go into too much detail, but try to capture the essence of what you think makes the book good. Are the characters interesting? is the plot engaging? is the World-Building especially good? that sort of stuff. While you are discussing the book, the listener will pick up on clues and keywords on their own and see if your description matches with their tastes.
  • Dot not attack their tastes: Often I see people putting down books, games, and other media that they dislike in order to promote what they like. This is a sales technique, and a fairly tacky one as far as I am concerned. If you are recommending to someone, and you care about being polite, don’t slap them down by saying your tastes are better than yours. Try to make your recommendation in a positive fashion.

Complex Method (step by step):

  1. Find out what books they enjoy: This is my preferred method of recommendation. These days fantasy is such a rich genre than you can usually recommend books based on similarity to other books. Even if those books are outside the genre, I can often recommend based on similarity to sub-genres of fantasy. For example fans of thrillers are more likely to enjoy the Dresden Files than Tolkien, at least to start.
  2. Delve deeper: Find out what the person likes about their favourite works. Do they enjoy strong, upright, moral characters, or do they favour assassins and bastards? Do they like a particular historical time period? are they looking for action or intrigue? Do they want a book with Dragons or Zombies?
  3. Find out what got them interested in Fantasy: Some people may not have book interests that can be easily related to fantasy, for these you have to discover what sparked their interest in the genre. Some will come from games, while others might have watched Game of Thrones on TV. Once you have established this you can go through steps 1 and 2 again.
  4. Remember that you live in the information age: There are plenty of helpful sites and lists out there that will help you find the right book for someone. Amazon has an also-bought recommendation section, Good reads has listopia, and so on. These can spark  your imagination if your are having difficulty.
  5. If they are new and nervous, start with something simple: Don’t throw Gormenghast at people new to the genre,, who are just looking to test the waters, it will only discourage them.

Above all, remember that the genre is big and growing, and with that diversity it is more and more likely that you will find something suitable and maybe even discover a new book that you might like along the way.