Why a scathing review can be more helpful than a positive rating

Dom1CoverSmallI recently ran a promotion for Dark Glass on Kobo, and I’ve been very happy with the results‌—‌a few hundred downloads in over twenty countries. It’s exciting and strange to think that someone in Singapore has downloaded my book. They might even read it.

But things don’t stop with the download of the free book. Hopefully, I’ll see some sell-through, when readers of that first book choose to buy the rest in the series. Maybe a couple of people will join my mailing list.

And the other advantage of doing a promotion on a free book is the chance of getting more reviews.

Reviews are hard to come by, especially for someone near the start of their writer journey, but they are incredibly useful. Reviews give a certain amount of social proof to the book, they help guide other potential readers, and they opens up the opportunity to run more book promotions (certain sites will only accept books with a minimum number of reviews, or a certain minimum rating average.)

experience-3239623_1280Of course, not every reader leaves a review. Many people who download a free book will never even read it. Some will start it and never finish it. And many who reach the end will move straight on to another book. It takes effort to write even a couple of lines.

Many book sites allow readers to leave ratings, though‌—‌usually between one and five stars. This, clearly takes less effort and time than writing a review, and so it is no surprise that on sites such as Goodreads and Kobo, there are often more ratings than reviews for individual titles.

Before running this promotion, I had a single five-star rating on Kobo. But a few days into the promo, I noticed a couple more ratings go up.

One was a three-star rating, the other two-star.

I could have become upset by these lower ratings, but I prefer to look at the positive. These two readers had still read the book and had taken the time to leave a rating, and for that I’m very grateful. And I know that not everyone will enjoy what I write, just as I don’t enjoy some very popular books, and other books that I love also have their fair share of low ratings. Everyone has their own taste, their own things they like to see in a book (and things they don’t want to see).

But there was one thing that I found frustrating‌—‌these were ratings without reviews.

See, I want to improve in my writing. While I want to write books that I enjoy, I also want others to enjoy them. A low rating tells me that someone found problems with the book, but without any comments I don’t know what they had issue with. I don’t know what I need to work on. Did they find the pace too slow? Were the characters hard to engage with? Were there issues with the writing itself? Were they turned off by the violence and the occasional swearing? Or did my product description lead them to expect a different kind of story?

Some of these things might be down to taste‌—‌and that might simply mean that Dark Glass was not a book for them. But I’d like to know. I’ve had high ratings, and very positive feedback via e-mail (someone recently commented on the ‘brilliant story’ in Dark Glass, which made me feel pretty good!), but I’m clearly not satisfying everyone.

feedback-2849603_1280I know there are problems with Dark Glass‌—‌it was the first book I brought out, and since then I’ve improved as a writer. At some point I’d like to revisit Dark Glass‌—‌as it is the first book in the series, and probably the first book people will read, I want it to be as good as I can make it. But without feedback, I can only improve so much. Without being informed of the issues readers have and the problems they find, I can only change the errors I see.

I doubt many people who have downloaded Dark Glass have read it yet (I know I’ve got free books from a couple of years ago that I haven’t got round to reading yet). Many copies will probably never get opened. But out of those that are opened, I’m looking forward to more reviews and ratings. High ratings and positive reviews will obviously be great, but I hope readers are honest, and those who didn’t enjoy the book as much as they expected let me know why. Then I can take readers’ comments on board, and use this feedback to improve my writing and storytelling.

And this is a process that I know I will repeat with every book. I’ll never write a perfect book, and there will always be those who don’t enjoy my writing, but I can still strive to improve.


New short story (follow up to last one)

My last short story, For Blood, had a creature attacking a village, and those villagers doing what they could to defend it. This time, in For Blood (II), it’s the creature’s story.

I’m heavily into edits of Shadowstrike (the third Shadows novel) at the moment, and there are may different monsters in that book. But they aren’t all ‘evil’. Even the most monstrous have reasons for their actions.  In many cases, monsters are only defined as such by our own perceptions. Truth is often a matter of viewpoint rather than fact.

Anyway, you can read For Blood (II) here. And, as always, I’d love to hear your thoughts and comments.

Hiding behind a book with no cover

reading-2557256_1280It’s always interesting to see what books others read. As a reader yourself, I’m sure that, when you first walk into someone’s home, your eyes are drawn to their bookshelves. When you see someone reading on a train, or in a cafe, or on a park bench, it’s hard to resist turning your head to catch sight of the book cover.

But that’s only possible if they’re reading a print copy. If they’re using an app on a phone, or a dedicated e-reader, there is no visible cover. They could be reading anything.

Annoying in some ways, but from another angle it’s incredibly liberating. While some people might want to be seen with certain books, I would imagine most readers simply want to enjoy the book, without having the outside world intruding. And we don’t want strangers judging us on one book we happen to be reading at that particular moment.
E-books allow us to read anonymously.

And this, I believe, has been of benefit to certain genres of fiction.

Maybe the most obvious example is erotica (or, as I believe it is referred to on Kobo, ‘active romance’). While many people enjoy reading erotica, there has always been (and still is) a certain stigma attached to these books, and for a lot of readers it is (was?) something of a guilty pleasure. With covers that leave little to the imagination, reading erotica has long been something reserved for those quiet moments behind closed doors.
But without covers, this issue goes away.

You could argue that people openly read the Fifty Shades books, but the covers for these books (and other ‘mainstream erotica’) are far more subtle. And, with any popular book, a reader can always say they were simply trying to figure out what all the fuss was about. People feel safe reading popular books.

But erotica isn’t the only genre to have benefited from books with no cover. I’d say that genre fiction in general now has a wider ‘open’ readership.

This is (in part) down to how people want to be perceived, and can be illustrated by something supernatural thriller author and indie-publishing expert Joanna Penn has often said.

When she started writing, she believed that she should write something ‘proper’, citing Umberto Eco as an example. ‘Proper’ authors like Eco wrote serious literature, books that won prizes and were praised for their literary merit. But the books she enjoyed reading were things like Dan Brown thrillers.

adult-2242164_1280I think this is a fairly common mindset‌—‌writing (and reading) is seen as an intellectual activity, and books should be literary art. Yet we are drawn to stories and interesting characters. Art-house cinema and ‘serious’ films win praise, but most of us would prefer a couple of hours of escapism, with snappy dialogue, chases and explosions (or whatever flavour of ‘popcorn entertainment’ is your bag). And this carried over to our reading. We’d rather be seen with a ‘serious’ book than something frivolous, even if we’d rather be reading some pulpy sci-fi.

But now, with e-readers and phones, we can read exactly what we want, without fear of judgment.

Of course, the opposite could also be true. Some years ago, I’d read on my lunch-break, and one of my co-workers, seeing the size of the book, asked in a derogatory fashion, “What’s that, War And Peace?”, like reading something serious should be looked down on. (When I replied with a simple, truthful, “Yes”, the conversation was over, and I could carry on reading). If I’d been reading on my phone, they never would have made that comment‌—‌they probably would have assumed I was on social media.

The lack of a visible cover also goes some way to explaining the popularity of YA (Young Adult, for those of you unfamiliar with the term). Ostensibly, these books are aimed at older teenagers, but the various subgenres are popular with all ages. Of course, Harry Potter and the Hunger Games books are YA that it is okay to read, but these books, like the Fifty Shades books, are available in more ‘mainstream’ covers.

None of this should really matter. We should be able to read what we want, when we want, without concerns over how others may see us. But we all judge. So reading e-books, where the only way someone else can know what we are reading is by either asking or by looking over our shoulder, is an ideal way to read whatever we want.