“I’ve written this book…”

I was skimming the discussions in the Amazon forums the other day and there was an entire thread devoted to authors and their shilling of their own books in response to someone on the forums asking for reading recommendations.

One thing that came out that staggered me completely was that apparently there were writers out there who posted 5-star reviews of their own work on Amazon – or, worse, who did that under fake names (like things won’t come out in the wash eventually!) and who then got all defensive when the ethics of this were, um, questioned (to put it mildly – some of the questioners were pretty damned trenchant about it)(as they should be!)

Um, folks, the word is “review”. Usually implies that it’s someone ELSE’s response to your work. And that someone else is actually allowed to have an opinion. And that opinion may not be gushing. And that’s *okay* – hey, it’s never pleasant to read a bad review of one’s work but I’ve heard it said that if nobody hates your book not enough people are reading you. You simply CANNOT please all of the people all of the time, and the thing that comes closest to that is something that’s so bland and such pablum that it doesn’t actually stir up any reactions at all – and you don’t want THAT said about your book, now, do you? Writing your own reviews – this ought to be self-evident, dammit – especially if they’re “this is the best thing since sliced bread/Stephen King/Nora Roberts/J K Rowling” kind – is utterly counterproductive. Once you’ve written your book, once it’s out there in readers’ hands, you have nothing more to do with it. You have done what you can do. Let go, let God, let the readers. If you get a storm surge of awful reviews you might consider the fact that you didn’t achieve what you set out to do and resolve to do better next time – arguing back to your readers and calling them idiots who are simply not intelligent enough to understand your grand vision (stand up and take a bow, Anne Rice) is not the thing to do unless you wish your name and authorial reputation to become well known for reasons that have nothing to do with the quality of your published work.

The self-promotion stigma is further exacerbated by the fact that this kind of strenuous “self promotion” is often the trademark of people who are self-published, the POD outfits of PublsihAmerica type or others with marginally better reputations, the kind of “publisher,” in fact, which more or less prints your book, sends you a thousand copies, and then washes its hands of any publicity or promotional input whatsoever leaving it up to the author to ensure that more than fifty of their closest friends and relatives ever get to hear of the book’s existence at all. So when an author pops up uninvited into some online conversation forum and starts beating their chest and screeching, me, me, look at me, I have this book – they might be arrogant, but they might also be ignorant, or foolish, or simply desperate.

Getting on the radar is damnably difficult to do – and it is one of the more bewildering aspects of the publishing industry (the legit publishers, both large and small, as opposed to the vanity outfits) that the biggest and best publicity goes to the books who don’t really need it at all and the little guys, the new writers, the midlisters struggling in the valleys, get pretty short shrift.

So – what do you guys think? When is it permissible to chime into a recommendation thread which seems to be asking for precisely the kind of book that you’ve written but you see nobody *else* recommending it – and suggesting that the original poster who asked for recces might want to take a look at your own work, while making it perfectly clear that you yourself are the author of said work and without hiding behind a bevy of false names to do it? Is that shilling?  What do you do when you see something that’s been properly published – when you’ve done everything right, gone the right roads, dealt with the right people, all your ducks are neatly in a row – but nobody seems to have HEARD of your work and your publisher’s publicity budged for your book or books appears to hover dangerously close to zero? I don’t think all that many of us are holding out for multiple-city book tours for every book, or for interviews on Oprah – but at least one friend of mine out there, with an otherwise well-received fantasy series, has actually been told point blank by her publishers that the promotional budget doesn’t exist. And then, when the sales numbers kind of follow that curve (how does a customer buy a book of whose existence they were blissfully unaware?) it’s the author’s fault, and series get canned mid-arc, or bookstores refuse to carry book 2 because the sales of book 1 were negligible, or you get the bittersweet experience of having somebody write you a fan letter which says, I am retired bookseller, I just finished your book, loved it loved it loved it, wish I were still a bookseller so that I could hand-sell it (but am not so can’t…)

When is it okay to step up and tell someone who has already asked for information that the thing you have written might fit the bill? Is it EVER appropriate for an author do do so? What do you do when you know you are under the radar, but have no idea how to get your head up high enough so that the radar might at least glance off the ends of your hair…? Nice guys finish last, but obnoxious boors are resented and ignored. If you’re a writer who’s walked the tightrope of that middle road I’d love to hear how you kept your balance. If you’re a reader with an opinion as to how best one can reach you and all your friends, I’d love to hear that too.

Signing off now, teetering halfway across a tightrope with visions of hungry alligators snapping in the pit down below…

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  1. 1. Ian Sales

    Check out http://www.suvudu.com/2008/09/science-fiction-or-science-fan.html

    I’ve not read Risch’s novel – but it’s clearly self-published and… guess who’s left a 5-star review for it on Amazon?

  2. 2. Jim C. Hines

    “When is it okay to step up and tell someone who has already asked for information that the thing you have written might fit the bill? Is it EVER appropriate for an author do do so? What do you do when you know you are under the radar, but have no idea how to get your head up high enough so that the radar might at least glance off the ends of your hair…?”

    I tend to play it pretty conservative. Even when someone posts a thread saying, “Where can I find humorous fantasy from the monster’s perspective, preferably one with glasses and a pet spider?”, I probably wouldn’t jump in.

    I doubt people would hold it against me if I politely mentioned my books in such a thread, but I’ve just seen way too much over-the-top, tacky, obnoxious self-promotion, and I don’t want to be associated with that obnoxiousness in any way.

    I’ll talk about my books in my blog, at conventions, and so on. But popping up in random threads to advertise your stuff … I’ve done it once or twice in the past, but it’s not something I do anymore. I’m just not comfortable with it.

    I do participate in some online discussion forums, and what I’ve found is that if you actually converse and chat and talk about something more than just “Please buy my books please please please!!!”, then the other forum members actually remember your name, check out your profile, and might even be more likely to go out and buy the books without you having to say a word. Also, it’s much more pleasant for me the author to just chat about fantasy with other readers as opposed to running around, frantically shilling and selling.

  3. 3. Alma Alexander

    “I doubt people would hold it against me if I politely mentioned my books in such a thread, but I’ve just seen way too much over-the-top, tacky, obnoxious self-promotion, and I don’t want to be associated with that obnoxiousness in any way.”

    That. Yes. That. precisely that.

    There’s been so much ickyness associated with it that the gut reaction is simply, oh, I’ll NEVER pick up that person’s books again (no matter how perfect they sound).

    Publishing is such a strange industry…it often comes to choosing between being damned if you do and doomed if you don’t…

  4. 4. Jim Hetley

    One thing to watch for, if you decide to call some of those . . . persons . . . on their efforts. Some of them will track you down and post trash reviews on your books in revenge.

  5. 5. Nicholas Waller

    In the pre net days, William Atheling Jr reviewed “A Case of Conscience” by James Blish, though in fact Atheling and Blish were the same person. Mind you, Atheling didn’t give it 5 stars – he had some criticisms of the book: “probably did not need to be so damn talky”;”the huge mass of detail and local color is also overdone”; “fails to be ambiguous enough”.[At the time, people didn't know who the critic Atheling was, and avoiding reviewing Blish might have alerted them. Quotes from the collection The Issue at Hand, 1964].

    As for “shilling” your own works, the odd accurate mention that your work might fit the bill of something requested in a discussion thread can’t hurt, if presented in a humble manner and not as the best thing ever.

  6. 6. SMD

    To be honest, it only becomes an issue for me when authors only recommend themselves (oh and if they do what you’ve said with the whole hiding who they are thing). But if you recommend yourself and then recommend a handful of other authors you enjoy, that’s cool in my book. It at least shows that you’re not just shamelessly promoting yourself. You’re promoting others too. I’m much more likely to pay attention to you in that case.

  7. 7. Dude The Guy

    I agree with your comments on the reviews, and on obnoxious self-promotion, but it’s uneccessary and a real low-blow to try to equate that with the self-publishing crowd, and then to imply that they are illegitimate and of low reputation, and then to top it off, call them “vanity presses”.

    Not all of us work under a corporate umbrella with an external authority rubber-stamping our work.

  8. 8. Alma Alexander

    “Dude” – if you’re talking to me, I specifically mentioned people like PublishAmerica (and you can independently google their reputation, I don’t have to flog that dead nag here). But the fact of the matter is that the bulk of the really in-your-face “ME ME ME ME MEEEEE” crowd DOES come from the self-published ranks (with good reason, because often deciding to go ahead and self-publish a work of fiction after it’s been rejected by actual, you know, PUBLISHERS in a what-do-they-know-anyway attitude) is, um, counterproductive. MANY of those books are rejected for good solid reasons. This is not to say that gems NEVER appear in self-published fiction – but they are sufficiently rare for that to be the very much the exception and not the rule – and the rule is that the REST of the stuff is by and large forgettable, if you want to be charitable, and absolutely awful, when you run out of charity altogether.

    I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again. Publishing is a privilege, not a right. Not every book that’s written is going to get published. That’s probably as it should be.

    And um, the “rubber-stamping” thing? I tend to look on it more as a layer of quality control. To be sure, not everything published through “corporate umbrella” channels is perfect – not by a LONG shot – but at least I have an idea that somewhere along the line someone OTHER than the author actually thought the book might have merit…

    Self-publishing books for niche markets might be a viable option. But for fiction… speaking purely on my own behalf, others are free to disagree… I think it is, or should be, a non-starter. If you cannot get an editor to believe in your book why do you think that any other reader might be more easily won over if you can simply find a way to shove your book into their unwilling hands…? Sorry to be so blunt, but those are the cards that are on the table. Read the spread as you see fit.

Author Information

Alma Alexander

Alma Alexander is a novelist, short story writer and anthologist whose books include High Fantasy ("Hidden Quen""Changer of Days"), historical fantasy ("Secrets of Jin Shei", "Embers of Heaven"), contemporary fantasy ("Midnight at Spanish gardens") and YA (the Worldweavers series, the Were Chronicles). She lives in the Pacific Northwest with her husband and two cats. Visit site.

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