Monday, September 3, 2012

A new rating system

Just over a year ago, I posted an article called "What's Happened To Our Reviewing System?" It took issue with the current way we rate books, but without suggesting a way to improve it. I'll rectify that now.

Say you're a fan of horror novels and Stephen King's Carrie is your favorite book. If asked by Goodreads or another site what you would rate it, you would click on the fifth star without a second thought. A fan of British science fiction might do the same for A Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy; Dark fantasy lovers might bestow the highest ratings for some of Neil Gaiman's works. And if those books are your favorites, then giving 5 stars may be appropriate.

But how many stars would these same reviewers give Anna Karenina, Pride and Prejudice, or Ulysses? To say that Carrie or American Gods is on the same level as The Grapes of Wrath is simply silly. But this is what's happening. Ratings simply don't tell the whole story.

So here's my suggestion: Let the horror lovers give Books of Blood, Volume 1 5-star ratings if they love it that much. But let all ratings be by genre, not across genres. When something is given a 5-star rating, that should mean "Among the best of the genre," not "Among the best books ever written."

I recently gave Neal Stephenson's Anathem 5 stars. That doesn't mean that I think it is a literary masterpiece that will be taught in colleges for centuries. I suspect that very few people will even get through it, but I simply couldn't go any lower. It is visionary, scientific, futuristic, and philosophic (in fact, he invents his own philosophical system) with interesting characters, a riveting story, and an unusual twist just when you think you're on the home stretch. It takes science fiction to a whole new level--just as his Snow Crash did a decade earlier--and as his Reamde does to the Thriller genre.

But if 5 stars indicates "Among the best of the Genre," what would 4 stars indicate? Well, obviously, not  among the best in the genre, but still quite good. Kind of like, maybe Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials series, which is both thought-provoking and exciting. Yet compared to the Harry Potter series, it seems lacking. Another neat thing about this rating system is this: if you think that Pullman is the better writer, you can give him the 5 stars and Rowling the 4. I would give four stars to books that  might not be among the best in the genre, but that I enjoyed immensely and would probably want to read again. Paul Theroux' Ozone and Kurt Vonnegut's Slapstick (to which Vonnegut himself gave only a 2) come to mind.

And what about 3 stars? Although it usually means "good" or "I liked it okay," it has become a rating that no one wants to be given. Although it isn't death, a preponderance of 3-star ratings might be off-putting to potential buyers, especially when 5 stars is so commonly given. I'll give three stars, too, sometimes. I gave one to The Great Gatsby, which I've never really found that interesting, but it probably won't hurt Fitzgerald's sales any. I would hesitate, though, to give 3 or fewer stars to an e-book by an independent author. Instead, I would give a short review stating what I liked about the book and what I didn't. And not issue any stars, avoiding that part of the rating system. Or I might simply avoid rating it at all.

Two stars? One star? I see no real point to issuing many of these. If the book is truly terrible, let someone else give the bad news. I've noticed that many of the very worst reviews are from readers with an agenda. Also, if a book is bad enough to get only a single star, why finish it? It is an opportunity, however, to get your ya yas out on things you were forced to read as a child, like The Five Little Peppers and How They Grew, in college (Nightwood.), or something you finished despite your better judgment or if you simply had nothing else to turn to (the Lemony Snicket books). But use these sparingly.

Here are some other genres (or subgenres), just in the category of fiction
Romance, not to be confused with
Paranormal Romance--a different subgenre entirely
Classic World Literature (War and Peace, for instance)
Classic American Literature (Huckleberry Finn). Not to be confused with
Contemporary American Literature, like Jennifer Egan's award-winning A Visit from the Goon Squad or the independent Still Waters by Sara Warner. Both these books, in time, might become part of Classic American Literature or even Classic World Literature, but let some time pass.
Mysteries, like The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes or The Thin Man. But this genre has its own sub-genres, like
Lesbian Mysteries (Iza Moreau's The News in Small Towns), or any LGBT mysteries, which seem to include aspects not found in straight mysteries (like more sex, for instance), and which have different agendas.
Science Fiction can be broken down into several sub-genres, including
Fantasy, which is not quite the same as
Dark Fantasy, which is, in turn, not quite the same thing as
And so on, which is another thing Vonnegut said.

Rating books is a serious business. And we are the main reviewers now, not The New York Times. Although you are expected to give writers that are your friends the maximum number of stars, be as truthful as you can with your actual written ratings. Include a short description explaining the number of start that you assign. And keep in mind--whether you are writing or reading the rating or the review--that the book is being compared to other books like it, not to literature as a gigantic and worldly whole.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Paper books will never disappear.

Thirty-two years ago I became a book publisher. In 1990, of course, electronic books were just random strings of code running around in the mind of literary teckies. Physical books made out of paper and ink were coming off presses in incredible numbers. Printers were relatively easy to find, so I negotiated with one in my area of North Florida. What I delivered was camera-ready; that is, I had designed the look of the book, typed it, proofread it, and assembled it. A friend designed a cover, so all the printer had to do was burn the plates and print it.

Now here's the thing. For a real paper-and-ink printer, preparation and setup are everything. Once preparation and setup are complete, it is just as easy to print 10,000 copies as it is to print one, but the preparation costs are steep. So the price of printing was tied to the number of copies. The book I delivered turned out to be just under 200 printed pages. If I would have chosen to get 100 copies, each one would have cost well over $20--an impossible proposition for a book whose cover price was $7.95.

I ended up ordering something like 5,000 copies of this book, which brought the cost per book down to just under $2, not including shipping which added another few cents to the total. And opening that first box and seeing the stacks of shiny red covers was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Yet, over 30 years later, I still have a good number of these books in storage, still in their original boxes with their original packing. Dozens of copies can be purchased on-line from stores across the country for under a buck.

Now we have electronic books, which have no physical storage problems. A huge debate is raging over whether or not the print book will eventually be totally replaced by electronic images of itself. But much of the same technology that gives us iBooks and Kindle has also created print on demand. Roughly speaking, print on demand simply means making a hard copy of an e-book. There are many of these print-on-demand publishers floating around the internet. Lightning Source, affiliated with library and bookstore distribution giant Ingram is one. CreateSpace, owned by greedy Amazon, is another. There are hundreds more to choose from. I chose CreateSpace because there are no set-up fees and because the book will automatically be listed and sold by Amazon.

One of my publisher friends recently suggested using CreateSpace, saying that it "wasn't rocket science." Maybe not, but getting your book--and cover--uploaded correctly to CreateSpace is not easy. I have now published three books through CreateSpace. For the last two, it took my wife and I several weeks to get things the way we wanted them in terms of book size, font style, margins, and the like. But their review process is extremely helpful. And designing a cover is always a pain, although CreateSpace will actually provide a selection of templates for free, as well as offering professional services in case you are not a do-it-yourselfer. This post, though, is for those who are.

The upshot is that I now have three books published through CreateSpace. Using their standard page and cover stock, each of the three books is about 100,000 words and all weigh in at just one pound, but there the similarity ends. Each has a different font, for instance, and different margins. They also have different sizes, which affects the price. Here'a a breakdown:
Book One, 6 x 9, 256 pages. Cost per book: $3.75
Book Two, 5.5 x 8.5, 304 pages. Cost per book: $4.49
Book Three, 5 x 8, 340 pages. Cost per book: $5.00

The "suggested" size is 6 x 9, which is what I chose for Book One. Larger pages translate into more words on the page and less pages overall. The larger the font, the more pages. And the higher the page count, the greater the cost. But all are attractive sizes and in line with sizes used by mainstream publishers for fine works of literature, which these are.

What's more, the price of these books is affordable to virtually anyone. For $5 you can own a great-looking copy of your masterpiece. And you don't have to order more than one to get that price. In fact, I don't think you have to order any at all--you can just let greedy Amazon sell it for you. But it you are someone who sells your own, you can turn a pretty good profit by taking a book you paid $5 for and selling it at the standard trade-paperback price of about $15. Even if you discount it for friends or promotions, you can double your investment.

So now we get to the reason for the title of this post. Although e-books will continue to have a greater audience and have a greater impact on our reading habits, print-on-demand publishers will ensure that many--if not most--of us will want print copies of our own books, even if we no longer have a need to litter our bookshelves with John Grisham or Stephen King tomes. And I don't think there's an author on earth that would pass up the chance to make that happen. I sure didn't.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Truth or fiction? Who cares?

When I'm reading book blurbs or movie announcements, there is one phrase that's guaranteed to send me scurrying to the next listing as fast as my little eyes can carry me. That phrase is: "Based on a true story."

If someone feels the need to tell me that their book is based on a true story, there is probably something seriously wrong with the work. Such as:
1. It is a quickly worked-up novel based on a sensational news story, whose author is hoping to cash in on the morbid rubberneckers in the audience. It tells me that the author was too lazy to create their own characters, plots, and situations.
2. It is a badly researched bit of history, biography, or crime drama that is called a "novel" simply for convenience (and maybe to attempt to avoid a lawsuit). It tells me that the author was too lazy to complete the research and get the facts right.
You can bet your boots that anything touted to be "based on a true story" is going to be an artless piece of trash.

But here's where things start getting tricky. Does that mean that all books based on true stories are trash? Of course not. Only the ones that are advertised as such by the authors or their publishers--the ones without literary value that appeal solely to the morbidly curious. One of the most famous pieces of "journalistic fiction" is Truman Capote's 1966 book, In Cold Blood. Dubbed by some critics as heralding a new form of crime reporting, it was labeled fiction by others because of changes Capote made in several scenes and for his re-creation of dialogue. Not to be outdone by his literary nemesis, Norman Mailer released his own piece of literary crime writing, The Executioner's Song, which chronicled the life and bad deeds of murderer Gary Gilmore. The book won the Pulitzer Prize in 1980 for--you guessed it--fiction. Capote's book entailed six years of research and thousands of pages of notes. Neither he nor Mailer had to rely on "Based on a true story," to win sales and accolades.

The famous novelist E. L. Doctorow wrote a fictional account of the lives of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg in his highly praised 1971 novel The Book of Daniel. His next novel, Ragtime, used a combination of fictional and made-up characters in his intriguing story line. Was it based on a true story? Who cares; it was a great book and I enjoyed reading it.

That brings us to copyright page disclaimers. You know what I mean: "This is a work of fiction and any resemblance between the characters and persons living or dead is purely coincidental." This is the actual text on the copyright page of Charles Bukowski's novel, Hollywood, which is a scathing roman à clef of the making of the movie Barfly. Is it fiction? Some of it probably. Is it based on a true story? Of course--everybody on earth knows this and no disclaimer can make it otherwise. There have been discussions of exactly how to word such a copyright disclaimer. What if only some of the things are true, what if the college is real but the basketball coach fictional? What if the stories are true but "the names have been changed to protect the innocent."?

Well here's a news flash. Every novel has at least a bit of truth, and most of them have more than a little. I've never written a novel or a story that doesn't have a great deal of myself in it, that doesn't use the mannerisms of someone I've met or observed, that doesn't use certain accents or colloquialisms I have heard from others, that doesn't describe living rooms or gardens of my friends and acquaintances. Again, any thinking person knows this. To have to add a disclaimer saying it isn't so, Joe, is just silly. It's a lie and everybody knows it's a lie.

Now I admit that it is wrong--and illegal--to write about a real person, either by name or giving that person a pseudonym, and insinuate that this person has committed a crime or done some other unsavory act without direct proof. And writing about real people can have consequences. When Thomas Wolfe wrote Look Homeward Angel, using thinly disguised versions of his family, friends, and home town, he was unable to return home for eight years due to the negative furor from those he wrote about. Worth Tuttle Hedden's marvelous novel Love Is a Wound is a similar effort. The biographical detail of the novel is part of its greatness and helps make it the culmination of her life's work.

So my advice to people who worry about exactly how to word their copyright disclaimer or their "based on a true story" blurb is this. Just hit delete.

Monday, January 16, 2012

What are the indie writers writing?

I was concerned about the fact that when looking through the New Releases on Smashwords, I rarely see anything that looks like literary fiction. No Moby Dick- or Huckleberry Finn-type stuff, even after I turn off the adult filter. So I did a little research on the number of books in different genres and this is what I came up with.
Genre                              All Titles      Titles over 25,000 words
Young Adult                        5,600                       3,520
Fantasy                              5,210                        2,750
Sci-Fi                                 4,980                        2,580
Romance                            3,970                        2,770
Mystery/Detective                3,920                        2,780
Suspense/Thriller                 2,570                        1,760
Horror                                 2,400                        1,510
Literary Fiction                    1,560                           740

There were also several categories that weren't actual genres--Christian, African-American, Gay & Lesbian, Holiday, Humor, and Women's. These would actually be subgenres under one of the categories on the list: Lesbian Mystery, for instance, or Romance featuring African-American characters.

Then there were a couple of catergories that shouldn't have been there at all: Adventure (which can usually fit inside either Mystery or Thriller), Drama (which should only be used for theater pieces, although most of the books actually listed under this heading could almost certainly be put in one of the 8 major categories above, and in the same percentages), and Poetry (which, like Theater, should be a separate category outside fiction).

And for what it's worth, there should be a Smashwords category for books over 60,000 words instead of 25,000. Twenty-five thousand words can be a good novella, but is more likely to be an unfinished or poorly thought-out novel. Sixty thousand words is my absolute low word count for a complete novel. And a study has recently shown that Smashwords readers prefer full-length works. This would make it easier for them to find.

So I was right to be concerned about literary fiction. It is the lowest of the low. But why? Do authors who write literary fiction think they are too good to publish directly into an e-book format? Or are they waiting until all other avenues (traditional publishers, agents, small presses) have been tried? Probably a little of both. I'm primarily a writer of literary fiction, by the way, yet none of the dozen or so books I have on Smashwords or Amazon are literary fiction.

Why am I saving my best work for last-minute publication? Do I really think that, in my mid-60's, I'm going to start seriously making the rounds of agents and publishers? Again? In this literary and economic climate? Not likely. But like other posts I have made in this blog, this one is helping me to review my own situation and  possibly make new decisions about my work.

I am confident that in time, literary fiction will significantly increase, giving readers a greater choice in what they read. Giving them, in fact, a better choice. Count me in on that.

UPDATE: 3/3/2012: About a week after I created this post, Smashwords expanded their search categories. Although they didn't create one for "books over 60,000 words," they did create categories for "over 50,000" and "over 100,000."