Writer’s World Episode #147: Treading Upon the Tail of the Tiger

Blog

Yesterday saw the amazing – yay! – debut of the first amazon.com review of the novel, double yay! Here’s to L. for taking the time and trouble to not only write it but post it to both Goodreads and Amazon, Amazon of course taking a couple of days to vet the thing but there it is!

Any authorpreneur who has done any research on the topic of reviews will understand the unequaled value and importance of this; namely, the manner in which there exist un-reviewed books and reviewed books and the difference between the two is, well, galactic in scope. The impossibly unequaled data on behalf of Amazon speaks for itself, this from statista.com, a site that tracks this stuff:

During September 2020, Amazon.com had over 2.44 billion combined desktop and mobile visits, up from 2.01 billion visits in February 2020. The platform is by far the most visited e-commerce property in the United States. As the most popular online shopping platform, Amazon’s influence on consumers shopping behavior extends beyond its own website. According to a February 2019 survey of U.S. Amazon users, 66 percent of respondents stated that they started their online product research on Amazon. Of course, Amazon is not only popular for product research but ultimately, also for making the purchase. The most important factors driving users to purchase via Amazon are pricing and low shipping costs.

https://www.statista.com/statistics/623566/web-visits-to-amazoncom/

I venture to estimate that now, following the global epidemiological weirdness, let’s call it, the data is pitched even more in Amazon’s favor, what with 2020 having ramped up internet shopping. The numbers are simply staggering and while breaking down the data into, say, how many hits KDP itself gets, or sci-fi books, what have you, doesn’t interest me a person in business for themselves at any level has to acknowledge, for better or worse in the end, the dominance of Amazon. Ignore it at your peril. It may change someday – look at the rise of youtube, for example, beyond its video posting function into “channels” that support ecommerce and ad revenue, etcetera. In short, work the system or risk oblivion.

Work the system? I’ve been writing the occasional review on Amazon for more than a decade (jellymoon is my moniker) and some of us find it a form of creative expression on its own; a communication that seeks to interweave the personal experience with the communal, as it were. And of course there are all levels of quality regarding reviews – some folks are truly talented – and we all know how to discern the tossed-off, thoughtless, unmindful, opinionated, off the mark “opinions” and uninformed commentary (that too often references the shipping/delivery experience and not the content) from the worthy insight and analysis. “Book arrived damaged, 1-star.” That kind of crap. And your star rating suffers this idiocy.

Meanwhile, composing a quality review is not easy and I appreciate that Amazon does its best to manage the authenticity and integrity, as best they can, of the source of the reviews. That is, most of us know that an author cannot post a review of their own book and it’s dicey to even have anyone you know – family member or coworker or anyone you’ve got a trackable electronic history with – do it. If Amazon sniffs out a connection they feel extends to an intimacy that surpasses that of an otherwise objective customer experience they will pull the review and send men in black to kill the offender. Well, perhaps not men in black but it’s a very serious business, if you read about it, these reviews. And as an author the very last thing you want to do is somehow get on the wrong side of all this and get blacklisted within KDP because you will be and you risk having your account cancelled no questions asked and then you’re banished forever.

Oh, it’s not that serious, you say, don’t exaggerate. I’m not. Look this shit up yourself. Let’s face it, just about anywhere else on the web you can post either your own reviews (or that of your family and friends) or pay somebody to cook up a review and post that. Not so at Amazon, folks. All of which is to say that for the most part, there is a great deal of time, money and effort spent upon maintaining the integrity, hence value of an Amazon review. It’s not bogus. It’s not bought and sold. Of course all of this vetting inevitably promotes a ceaseless form of gaming the system, a topic that I’m not inclined to try to describe here. Suffice it to say that Amazon is tasked with continually updating  their policing and if anyone is interested they describe their policy as it currently stands on their website:

https://www.amazon.com/gp/community-help/customer-review-guidelines-faqs-from-authors

How to encourage more Amazon reviews without getting on the wrong side of things? I’ve decided very simply not to get involved. I make my suggestions and communicate my encouragements from the distance of this blog and leave it at that. Reviews matter. Positive reviews are gold for the emerging author, no doubt. Negative reviews? Well, I try not to think about it. It’s enough that a person otherwise on the fence about your book can look to a positive review and establishes a level of social proof that is priceless.

Of course, if you’ve established yourself as a writer the value of reviews diminishes accordingly – the debate over the quality of a Stephen King novel, for instance, becomes for the most part irrelevant because his reputation as a worthy novelist goes without saying and folks buy his books prepared to bestow their own opinion. And Stephen King himself is probably wise to shy away from the reading of his own reviews so as to remain grounded in his work, I don’t know, I’m speculating.

Nevertheless, some authors shamelessly pummel and otherwise coach the book buyer with blurbs within the back matter or printed on the back cover: “If you liked this book please review it on….” Yadda, blah. I myself don’t need to be reminded, thanks, and it comes off to me as pushy so I’m not about to risk tarnishing a reader’s experience of my work with thoughtless self-promotion. Believe me, I’ve considered how to best maintain the balance between art-craft authenticity and commercial viability but in the end, you just do what feels right, you have to trust your heart. Garnering reviews, then, for me at least, after much pondering, is a thing best left to fate. Do your very best with your work – give it all you’ve got – and let it go. There is always the chance, after all, that for every enthusiastic and supportive reader you may suffer the opposite – a disgruntled buyer equally motivated to put their criticisms in writing. The genie grants your wish, as the mythology goes, and you get everything else that comes with it.

I’m not ashamed or embarrassed, then, to admit that receiving such a well-written, attentive and gracious review and to see it appear on the website of the biggest bookseller on the planet has been transformative to me as an author. It’s a dream come true, no doubt. If it never happens again, it has at least happened this once. You write, you publish, you tread upon the tail of the tiger and, heaven help you, you don’t get torn apart by the dynamics of your dreams. You envision success. But you can’t buy it. You cannot coerce it. And you cannot ensure it no matter how hard you try. Neither can you measure it, in the end, in financial terms. You can only exert your influence and endure that of the world-of-action. When the work is welcomed it’s a gift and a special form of legitimization – somebody gets it! – that makes it all worthwhile. Sure, we write for writing’s sake, for the sake of the story and the sense of individuation that it brings but we also write to be read and beyond that enjoyed and understood. Art-craft is nothing if not an impossibly earnest therefore impossibly vulnerable attempt at communication. When it works it’s not a letdown, rather, it’s the best thing ever. Thanks L. And thanks to everyone for reading.