Reviewing: An Unknown Writer’s Perspective

[Browsing through the murky depths of my hard drive the other day, I came across a handful of articles and interviews—some from quite a few years back—most of which were published on blogs or websites of fellow writers. So that I have everything I’ve had published collected in one place, I’ll reproduce them on my blog from time to time, with a brief note of when they were written and, where I can remember, why. There is often overlap between interviews and articles, and so inevitably the later pieces will repeat, sometimes verbatim, some of the earlier material.

Let’s kick off with this article, written in 2002 and first published in the long-defunct Cambrensis magazine*. To the fifty-six-year-old me, this piece displays a fairly high level of naivety on the part of thirty-eight-year-old me—it is evident that the possibility of a self-publishing revolution, which was around five years away when I wrote this, was not on my radar. Hardly surprising, given that I didn’t notice the revolution until around five years after it had started.

On with the article…]

 

How should an unknown writer approach the preparation of a review of another writer’s work? With extreme caution, I would suggest.

To state the obvious, though it’s surprising how often it seems to be overlooked, a review is a showcase of your own writing talent. Don’t make it dull and uninspiring, even if the book you’re reviewing is. Use it to demonstrate that you, too, are a writer, but without losing sight of the work under consideration. It’s a question of balance: providing a fair appraisal of the book, while revealing a glimpse of your own writing ability.

Books are like any other entertainment medium or artform – films, music, comics, photographs, paintings, theatre, etc. Beauty is very much in the eye (or ear) of the beholder. Take the film The Blair Witch Project, a perfect example. People who have seen it seem to fall within two distinct camps: those who love it and those who loathe it. I come within the former category. I thought the film was brilliantly conceived and executed, one of the scariest films made, yet without showing a single supernatural image or gory scene. That’s probably why many people felt it a waste of time.

The point, of course, is that art is completely subjective. This can best be expressed in relation to books by mutilating a well-known proverb: one man’s ripping yarn is another man’s sleep-inducer. And that’s a sentiment that we should always keep in mind when reviewing another’s work.

The best sort of reviewer is he (or she) who tells us enough about a book to give us a flavour – no more – of its plot and characters, tells us why he likes or dislikes it, then, regardless of personal taste, encourages us to go and read it. Such a reviewer appreciates that simply because he hated a book it doesn’t mean that we will, and recognises that his role is not to read a book in our place, but to draw our attention to it so that we may read it and judge for ourselves.

That, I believe, is the ideal we should all, as writers, particularly of the unknown variety, aim for when reviewing. The key word is objectivity. Let’s not dismiss other people’s work out of hand. We know, or can give a shrewd estimate of, the time and effort that goes into writing a book. Who are we to be contemptuous of the result of those labours? Moreover, do we want to run the risk of the first reviewer of our debut novel or collection being the same author whose work we so callously dismissed? Nor should we talk up good writing so much that it can never meet a reader’s inflated expectations. Remember: we have all had work that we feel is good summarily rejected, showing that we are not the best judges of our own work. Why should we be of others’?

And there’s a sound practical reason why a reviewer of, say, a novel, who is himself an aspiring novelist, should encourage people to read the book for themselves, even if he considers it the worst piece of writing he’s ever encountered. The more books people buy, the more money publishers make and the more should be available to filter downwards, making the publishers more willing to take risks on unknown writers. That’s you and me.

But wait, you’re saying. I have to review a novel that’s badly written, has a hackneyed plot, stereotypical characters and clichéd conflicts. It has no redeeming features and I can’t conceive of it being anyone’s ripping yarn. How can I encourage anybody to read such drivel without being completely dishonest?

Well, try to remember that somebody thought the book had something going for it – they’ve published it, haven’t they? Assuming the author isn’t the daughter of the publisher’s managing director, the book must have some good points. Take another look. Then another. If you still can’t find anything positive to say, then I suppose you’ll have to let rip.

Just don’t forget that in doing so you may be harming more than the reviewed author’s prospects.

 

*if you were a writer of short fiction or book reviews in South Wales at the turn of the Millennium, you will almost certainly have heard of Cambrensis

Returns

Although, on the whole, I think I’d rather be talking about film sequels, this isn’t a post about Return of the Jedi or Return of the King. It’s about audiobook listeners returning audiobooks. Yeah, I know. Big yawn, right?

Ordinarily, I’d agree with you. But something has recently come to light that affects many authors and narrators. Not in a good way. I’ll come onto it in a moment after I’ve laid out a little background.

Amazon has what I consider to be a reasonable policy for returns of its Kindle ebooks. A reader can return the ebook within 7 days* of purchase. Since it is possible to accidentally purchase an ebook you didn’t intend to with Amazon’s one-click function, it seems only fair that the reader who does this should be able to return the ebook without fuss. I also have no problem with a reader being able to return the ebook if they can’t get on with the writing style or subject matter and struggle to get past, say, the third chapter, or if the content is utter crap scraped from the internet and published as some sort of scam.

This policy can, of course, be abused. I have held conversations with people who have used Amazon as a lending library by reading and returning ebooks within the period allowed, but I believe Amazon has been clamping down on this practice. I usually get a smattering of ebook returns each month, but they seem to be far fewer now than they were two or three years back. Although the thought of someone buying one of my books, reading the entire thing and then returning it for a refund doesn’t exactly fill me with joy (since I don’t get paid for that ‘purchase’), it happens so infrequently that ebook returns aren’t really an issue for me.

How do I know that ebooks are returned infrequently? Amazon provides this information on my sales dashboard and in the monthly reports I download to compile sales figures. I also receive returns details from most other retailers through which I sell, such as Kobo or GooglePlay. Simple, transparent, as it should be.

So, what about audiobooks? More specifically, audiobooks sold through Audible (or Apple or Amazon via Audible’s distribution arm, ACX)? I’ll post some links shortly to more detailed explanations of the issue for anyone who’s interested; what follows is the potted version.

Audible members pay a monthly subscription, in return for which they have monthly credits (one per month with the basic subscription) they can use to ‘purchase’ an audiobook. Audible is owned by Amazon. It is alleged that both companies are encouraging members to exchange their used credit for a refund, i.e. to reuse the credit to ‘buy’ another audiobook with no questions asked. It doesn’t matter if the audiobook has been listened to and enjoyed in its entirety—the member can return the audiobook and reuse the credit for another book.

You might be thinking that sounds like a great deal for the Audible member, and I’d have to agree with you. But what about the author of the book in question and (if different and they are sharing royalties) the narrator? Ah, there’s the rub. You see, the cost of the refund isn’t borne by Audible or Amazon, but by the author and narrator. Some authors are claiming to be losing up to 50% of their audiobook income. For many of us, this income is part of our livelihoods.

To make things worse, unlike Amazon with ebook sales, Audible doesn’t provide authors with details of audiobooks returned. All we are given are the net sales figures. So, if I sold twelve audiobooks this month, but seven of them were returned by the listeners as allegedly encouraged to do by Audible, I would be paid for five audiobooks and wouldn’t know there were seven more copies sold but subsequently refunded.

To exacerbate matters even further, listeners aren’t limited to 7 or 14 days to return the audiobook for a refund. Fair enough, you might think—it takes longer to judge whether an audiobook is up to scratch than an ebook, so they probably get 21 or even 28 days. Nope, they get 365 days, Yes, you read that correctly. An Audible member could exchange their monthly credit for one of my books, listen to and enjoy the book, and return it up to a year later, whereupon Audible would recoup the refunded cost from me. If I had no sales during that particular month, I’d owe them money.

That’s not what I signed up for when I published my audiobooks on Audible. I was keen to enter the world of audiobooks as a means of getting my work to a wider audience and, naturally, boosting my writing income. I simply cannot afford to, in effect, give my audiobooks away for nothing.

I am deep into producing the second Earth Haven novel in audio. It is a massively time-consuming project that will have taken me the best part of a year by the time it is ready for publication. That’s at least as long as it took me to write, revise and edit the book in the first place. I’m wondering if it’s worth the effort. At the least, I’ll be looking to publish the completed audiobook in places other than Audible.

That’s the thing: unless Audible stops doing as alleged—encouraging returns and allowing them for up to a year without question—and unless it starts providing details of returns to authors and narrators, many content providers will be thinking twice about placing more content with them. What sounded such a good deal for Audible members will become increasingly less so as the flow of new content dries up.

A Facebook group has been set up to pool information and experiences, and to coordinate approaches to Audible. (I’ll link to it shortly in case you’re affected by this—I believe you’ll need to prove you’re an author or narrator before you’ll be allowed to join.) The initial response isn’t promising. While Audible has recently acknowledged there is an issue**, it appears thus far to be reluctant to provide details of returns to authors upon request.

I wondered whether I ought to talk about this. There could be audiobook listeners looking in who weren’t aware that it was possible to use Audible membership as, in effect, an unlimited lending library, and go trotting off to sign up. I am also aware there are people out there who believe that all digital content should be freely available to whoever wants it. Well, all I can say to them is that I, like many others, work my butt off to produce digital content and I simply cannot afford to provide it without any financial return. I hope that most audiobook consumers will agree that authors and narrators deserve to be paid for their work. If we’re not going to be, most of us will stop doing it.

* in the US; in the UK, for some reason, it seems to be 14 days

** from a ‘Letter to the ACX Community’ sent by email on 11th November:
“In addition, we’ve recently heard from members of the ACX community who are concerned about Audible’s overall return policy. While this customer benefit is for active members in good standing and suspicious activity is rare, we take your concerns very seriously and are actively reviewing the policy with this feedback under consideration.”

Links
Audiblegate! The incredible true story of missing sales
The Digital Reader
Facebook group