Thursday, August 4, 2011
I just got an email from Mark Coker, founder of Smashwords. He has accepted my application to become a Smashwords-recommended formatter. That means I am on "Mark's List"--a list Smashwords supplies to authors needing someone to format their manuscripts into e-book form. I specialize in poetry and drama, but am also proficient in fiction and nonfiction. Let me know if you need something done and we'll talk.
Lately I have downloaded three full-length e-books by authors who either chose not to go the agent-publisher route or who were rejected by same. One was a collection of very odd mystery stories, one a juvie SF novel, and the other a straight novel aboiut owning a bookstore. Although I got enjoyment from all three--and eagerly looked forward to my nightly chapters--there were obvious reasons why they would have been rejected by both agent and publisher. Because they each showed so much promise, I had the fleeting wish that I were a publisher so that I could help them fix those last little things that would transform their work from a flawed exercise to a finished work of art.
As someone who has purchased these titles on Smashwords, I have the option to review them, just as we all have the option to review anything we like on Amazon.com, anything we view on Netflix, or anything we purchase on eBay. But what rating should I give? Let's take a look at the book of mystery stories I downloaded. The book is a send-up of the Sherlock Holmes stories, set in California. The "detective" is a Japanese martial arts master and his assistant is his janitor. In turns hilarious, depraved, and just plain stupid, it is still engaging and brilliantly creative. But if the Sherlock Holmes stories get 5 stars (out of 5) and the Fu Manchu stories get 4, how can I give this flawed pastiche more than 3?
The juvenile science fiction novel has a high level of imagination and pages and pages of explanation about how the various ships and high-tech gadgets work. The characters are engaging but not as finely drawn as they need to be. The failure of the novel comes partly because the main character is a 53-year-old man. No young reader would be able to identify with him the way they might identify with the many young members of the crew. In addition, of the over 100,000 words, probably 60,000 of them come in a series of long, explanatory dialogues. The action--what little there is of it--is almost an afterthought. So if Harry Potter gets 5 stars and the second Tom Swift series gets 4.5 stars, how could I give this novel more than a 3?
The novel about bookstores is the closest to being complete, but even here I found many gaps and glitches that keep it from being what I would consider finished. It is comic, but also literary; that is, not in any real sub-genre like SF or Horror or Mystery or Romance or whatever. And literary works are rare at Smashwords so far. So kudos for effort, but if The Grapes of Wrath is a 5, how could I give this novel more than a 2? Let's go farther; if Riceyman Steps, by Arnold Bennett is the 5 or bookstore-related novels and Orwell's Keep the Aspidistra Flying is 4.5, how could I give the e-book I read more than a 3?
And that's where the problem starts. People buy things (or read things) based on ratings. It is hard to understand that 5 stars--to some people--mean that the work is among the best in the world. Four stars means that the book is excellent. Three means good, but not really special. Yet what I have come to realize is that people rarely look at books that have an average rating of less than 4 stars. Check out the major booksellers on Ebay or Amazon: they expect you to give them straight 5s for what may be only mediocre service--for books thrown into envelopes without padding or protection, or books sent out several days after payment. Some sellers won't even deal with buyers with less than a perfect rating.
Average has become the new meaning of 5 stars. I can't accept that. A book is excellent or it is not. It is finished or it is not. The characters are finely drawn or they are cliched. A 5-star book means that the book is excellent in almost every way. Yet giving a work only a 3 will probably doom it to obscurity, especially if other reviewers buy into the idea that if you like something you purchase it must be worth 5 stars. Or that the author will feel slighted at getting less.
Conversely, some readers take issue with an author's religion or political opinion or language, and will give a book only 1 star. Also not cool, even though there is a lot of stuff in the Indie e-book universe--probably close to the majority--that deserves only a single star. Still, there is no reason to show your superiority over these writers by crushing them; they won't believe you anyway--they'll just point to the 5-star ratings that were given to them by their friends or parents.
My suggestion is this. If you read an e-book and you like it, write a comprehensive review, mentioning the things you like and the things you think need work. If you recommend it, say so--with or without reservations. If you don't like it, ignore it. But know that you have the option to refrain from giving stars unless something is the best thing on earth or so disgusting that you just can't help yourself. Let the people who read your review decide for themselves on the basis of your words, not your numbers.