Who Pays for Book Reviews?

The short answer is everyone, although it might not be evident at first. National publishing trade magazines present the illusion that they are fair and balanced—a familiar phrase—in their review coverage, but given a closer look, these publications thrive on the sales of expensive advertising space, including their front and back covers. Other national trades don’t even hide the fact that they charge hundreds of dollars per review. You’ll notice that very few small publishers are mentioned in their pages. The presses that cannot afford ad space and review fees coincidentally go unmentioned, and all independent presses (i.e. micro presses and self-publishers) are typically barred from book review consideration.

Consider that advertising fees are built into the budgets of large press books, and when you purchase one, you are in effect paying for their media coverage somewhere along the line. There is simply no justification for highlighting or featuring the next murder-mystery redux novel in any of the media outlets, other than it is big business for the monolithic presses and they have the dollars to push their product. We are a capitalist society, and profit drives many editorial decisions. Any author who manages his/her own marketing has run into a media outlet (print, radio, etc.) that has promised increased coverage with the purchase of advertising space or time. While many local newspapers still hold an air of integrity, these venues are drying up faster than the rapidly fading printed news industry.

This state of affairs casts a long shadow over literature. One byproduct is that the large commercial presses, by virtue of supplying the economic lifeblood to the publishing media, control what reaches the reading public. Due to either politics or economics, certain genres and ideas are not desirable to large presses, and therefore, vital topics are kept from the public discourse, while excellent independent press authors go unnoticed. In the end, they turn to the Internet for help.

A survey of the web reveals hundreds of review outlets—some specialized, others general. Many of these reviewers write for free, and their coverage is professionally uneven. These are hobby sites. Meanwhile the Internet has killed the three-headed monster of publishing: paper, ink, and distribution. Through the years, paper and ink became increasingly expensive, and most recently rising gas prices (i.e. a distribution cost) was the death knell for most brick and mortar publications, but in the digital age, the Internet can more than fill the need while providing work for dedicated journalists.

In late 2009, the US Review of Books was created for two reasons: first, to provide inexpensive access to professional book reviewers for all authors and, second, to pay the writers a fair wage for their work. In eight years, the US Review has employed dozens of reviewers and written nearly ten thousand reviews to mostly happy authors. They are mostly happy, because the USR’s reviewers are honest and thoughtful. If a book is hackneyed or wasn’t properly edited, perhaps for style and spelling, the review is going to mention these facts. Luckily that isn’t the norm, and the large presses are starting to notice and quietly submit their books for value media coverage. Seeing the future, publicity agents and author services companies are also integrating the US Review into their marketing plans. Good books deserve serious consideration and discussion, regardless of where and how the book is published.

As the millennials—sometimes called the Digital Generation—assumes authority, the Internet and all modes of digital transfer will take control. It makes sense; it’s convenient and mostly green technology. Outlets like the US Review of Books will continue to expand in order to fill authors’ marketing needs while providing employment opportunities to the writing/journalist force.

Advertisements

Beauty is a Wound

by Eka Kurniawan
New Directions Publishing

reviewed by Christopher Klim

“One afternoon on a weekend in March, Dewi Ayu rose from her grave after being dead twenty-one years.”

Kurniawan’s poignant and at times rollicking novel covers a century of Indonesian history from the death throes of Dutch rule, through the Japanese invasion during World War II, and into the nation’s late-century struggle for independence. Centering on the fictional shore town of Halimunda, the story covers the exploits and trials of Dewi Ayu and her four daughters, each sired by a different father during critical points of her life. These are strong if not capricious women who are self-determined and at times reckless in their path through time. They form unique characters who are ultimately metaphors for the primary facets of modern Indonesian history and its struggle to enter the twenty-first century.

Dewi Ayu, who is part Dutch by blood, sees her status fall as the Europeans evacuate during World War II. After enduring Japanese imprisonment, she is pressed into service as a comfort women—a crime against humanity that the Japanese remain unapologetic for. Ironically she reverses this fortune by becoming the most famous and sought-after prostitute in all the land.

In time, Dewi Ayu’s oldest three daughters marry a head of the military, the most feared criminal in town, and a leading socialist activist respectively. As much as they must witness their husbands’ wrath on Halimunda, each daughter, like their mother, experiences unimaginable cruelty, as well as a unique reconciliation with love. For these women, beauty is both a weapon and a burden that costs them more than they deserve. The suffering of these exotic, compelling mixed-blood women summons their ability to overcome extreme circumstance in a way that only a woman can.

Turning the tables on the exploitation of what we hold dear in our eyes, Dewi Ayu’s youngest daughter forms a hideous sight by any standard. She is shunned by her community and mockingly named Beauty by her own mother who abandons her by dying shortly after her birth. Through the girl Beauty and the events to which all the women are exposed, author Kurniawan indicts the inhumanity against man brought by foreign occupation and the ensuing fight for independence. Here, there is scarcely anyone either not guilty or a victim of violence and a lust for power. Too often, less developed nations are dragged into the future by the worst men have to offer.

Like the intergenerational curse that lords over the family, much of this tale is tragic. However, it gains momentum and entertainment in its use of folklore, verisimilitude of setting, and spectacular storytelling that harkens the classic novel form. A hint of contemporary verbiage exists that may or may not have been introduced by Annie Tucker’s clean and consistent translation. The writing is markedly mature by achieving both broad palette concepts and distinct character details at the same time. This is a large novel about a country and a handful of interesting people delivered by an interesting new author on the English-speaking scene.

Fake Social Media: More Common Than You Think

Since we last discussed the issue of fake social media followings, some of our competitors have gotten even worse, falling into the 50% to 90% fake follower and friend range on Twitter and Facebook. On the surface, this seems harmless. Unfortunately they often sell marketing outreach as part of their services, and if the majority of their social media following is either purchased or inactive, they may be perpetrating a fraud, which is both unethical and illegal. And if a company is willing to promote a fake social media base, how else might they be deceiving their clients?

See our earlier article on why you should never use a fake social media following.

Fake social media followings are primarily composed of dummy accounts in non-English-speaking nations. These will do absolutely nothing to promote your business. Both Twitter and Facebook are well aware of the problem and attempt to crack down on the practice, but they simply cannot keep up with the pace of people who either sell or buy social media followings. Even the highest ranking people in the nation employ some level of fake social media.

Here are easy ways to spot a useless social media following:

Analyze the Account – A number of free tools are available, such a TwitterAudit for Twitter accounts and LikeAnalyzer for Facebook pages, that will provide measurements of fake social media followers. There are many other free options on the Internet. Try a few. You will be astounded by the results produced by some of your favorite companies, celebrities, and service providers.

Unbalanced Following-to-Follower Ratio – Twitter is built on reciprocity, which means that most of the people who follow you are followed back in return by you. The same goes for “likes” on Facebook, although this is much more difficult to track. Since Twitter is superior for marketing (i.e. Facebook is superior for customer interaction), check the following-to-follower ratio of a prospective business. A healthy Twitter account has about an 80% or better following-to-follower ratio. This means that the account is following almost as many people who follow the account. If you see many followers and few accounts followed in return, look closer at what this person or account is doing.

Few Number of Impressions or Reaches – Twitter activity is often gauged by the number of impressions a post garners, while Facebook is measured by the number of people reached. Often this data is internal to the account holder, but there are a number of aftermarket metrics to determine these values. Another way to gauge social media viability is through the number of likes and retweets on Twitter and the number of likes and shares on Facebook, although these speak more to furthering outreach than relevance to their initial social media base.

The questionable practice of employing a fake social media following falls into the “snake oil” category, recalling the days when charlatans circled the country with magic elixirs that claimed to cure all ills. The Internet is proving to be more like the Wild West than we ever knew. Hiring a fake social media following can be more than a waste of time. It can be dangerous to your limited marketing budget, and it puts into question everything the account holder does as a company.

See why the US Review of Books is different than many other review publications.

The Authority of Book Awards

Most authors, either through their own efforts or those of a PR firm, seek validation and publicity for their books. Recognition by a reputable book award can do both. Unfortunately, many national book awards are closed to small, academic, and independent press authors, and their practices can be just as exclusive and suspect as your local government. (See earlier article: The Eric Hoffer Book Award: Righting the Wrongs.)

While many award contests are open to small and independent press authors, the landscape is full of both charlatans and champions. As the Chairman of the Eric Hoffer Book Award for the last decade, I’ve helped develop a set a criteria that has elevated our book award to international prominence. This criteria should apply to any book award you are considering. In the spirit of transparency, I’ll apply each of the following questions to the Eric Hoffer Book Award as well.

How many registrants are accepted each year? The number of annual entrants should be available upon request both during and after registration. The overall number relates to public interest in the award. If only a few hundred or less register annually, then the book award is probably not worthy of your consideration. Each year, over one thousand entries register for the Hoffer Award. Our coordinator provides detailed registration information during the year and especially after the final results are tabulated in the spring.

What are the registration fees? This helps determine if the book award exists to help the authors or enrich the host of the award. The Hoffer Award registration fee is kept intentionally low. Some awards charge for every entry combination, which results in hundreds of dollars to fully register a book. For the Hoffer Award, a single category registration exposes your book to all higher level awards. The staff is composed of volunteers, although a small honorarium is given to the category judges. Clearly no one is getting rich for their hours worth of service. The bulk of our budget goes to shipping books around the country for evaluation.

What is the award focus? Many awards focus on certain genres or are known for one genre more than another. A little research should reveal this information. The Hoffer Award was designed to be all-inclusive across eighteen unique categories. Our registration committee ensures that each book reaches the correct judging committee.

What awards are given? Beyond cash prizes, recognition by a reputable award is much more valuable to the success of your book. Some awards honor only a grand prize and a handful of finalists, which means only a small percentage of worthy offerings are being recognized. The Hoffer Award offers a grand cash prize; winners, runners-up, and honorable mentions in eighteen categories; press type distinctions; the First Horizon Award, Montaigne Medal, and da Vinci Eye; and a group of category finalists. From thousands of registrants come over seventy prizewinners and dozens of finalists. Each author is able to capitalize on these honors in various ways.

Who are the judges? Without clearly stating who the judges are, your book will likely be evaluated by unqualified in-house staff. The Hoffer Award has over one hundred experienced category readers, who typically include librarians, literary agents, and category professionals. Judges are carefully vetted via resume/CV, references, and an interview with one of our coordinators. Judges are annually graded and rejoined/released based on their individual performance. It is not unusual for a returning judge to receive notes on improvement for the coming award year. To keep judges fresh, they are rotated into different qualified categories whenever possible.

What is the publicity campaign? Try to determine if the award uses traditional or modern campaigns, if any campaign at all. Merely posting results on their website is not a publicity campaign. The Hoffer Award uses a combination of promotional activities via press releases, media coverage, and the Internet. Our partnership with the US Review of Books has been highly beneficial to authors. (More on that later.) We also get honorees and entrants involved via social media to help promote each other. In the future, we are planning more innovative ways of cross-promotion via entrant participation. Some entrants have done very well with only an award nomination.

What is the award reach? The ways in which the award results are viewed and processed aids the success of honorees. The Eric Hoffer Award results are published within the US Review of Books, which is read by over 15,000 subscribers and tens of thousands of monthly visitors and followers. (The US Review reports a significant spike in traffic in the months surrounding the award announcements.) As the Chairman, I have firsthand experience of literary agents and publishers who scout our book award results for new authors and books. In our history, we have twice been asked to suppress the honors for an independent author because a new publisher has purchased the book (in part based on its Hoffer Award honors) and requires time to prepare the new publicity campaign.

How are the books judged? Any book award should offer a window into their evaluation process, otherwise it is a black box and open to doubt. To preserve integrity, the Hoffer Award does not divulge its judges’ names, but it does discuss its process with entrants and in writer’s forums across the country. Our scoring process is a proprietary seven-point system that encompasses the entirety of the book from content through production. Judges must complete scoring sheets and commentary according to schedule. No judge handles more than twenty books during an award year, and no judge works in more than one category. When the initial double-blind scoring is complete, books are promoted for higher level panels that are composed of mutually exclusive judges, although they may contact the initial judges for consultation.

Are they claiming publishing rights? Some book awards claim publishing rights for the book being entered. (Many literary magazines hang by a thread and claim one-time publishing rights of a story for an issue or anthology. That is reasonable, because there is little and often no money to be made.) However, claiming the publishing rights of any entire book or any portion without a significant payment in return is just another way to publish an author’s work for free. If the book award in question loves the book enough to give it honors, it should respect the author enough to offer a proper publishing contract. Each time we field this question from registrants for the Hoffer Award, we advise that the author avoid any operation that claims rights.

If the book award you are entering cannot answer the above questions satisfactorily or avoids answering these questions altogether, consider avoiding that organization. Every one of the Eric Hoffer Award’s correspondences explains our basic mode of operation within our e-mail signature, whether you ask the question or not. Any award you enter should be that transparent and work hard to promote your book.

Christopher Klim is the author of several books including and the novel, Idiot!, and the short collection, True Surrealism. He is currently working on a novel trilogy about the space program past, present, and future.

The Problem with Book Advertising

A true bestselling author (not a momentary flash on AMAZON Kindle, which creates “bestselling” authors we will never hear from again) has a large publisher spending piles of money to cover their hefty royalty advance. This repeated and wide-ranging advertising makes people aware of the book release and hopefully locks in sales. It’s an expensive luxury that happens for less than 1% of published authors. When you attend Book Expo, you’ll discover these authors peering down from forty-foot high banners hanging from the ceiling of New York’s Javtis Center. We all want to be the focus of such vanity. I want to be on a forty-foot banner, but for most authors, this type of expenditure will never be a reality.

That is fine. After all, the golden age of the author has ended. It died with authors like Styron, Vonnegut, and Vidal. The authors with forty-foot banners mark the end of this age, but unlike William Styron, the modern, banner-sized authors are not writers of literature. They are entertainers and commodity producers—a different sphere of the written word. And that is fine as well. Styron once said that he was surprised by the celebrity that came his way and not surprised by the general disappearance of it.

Also changing with the times is the way we communicate with each other. Most of us have grown up during the dawn of the Information Age and been bombarded with increased advertising during our lives. For Baby Boomers, the hot new devices were TVs and VCRs that skipped commercials. Millennials now do this subconsciously. Before advertising became super-saturated within our culture, a message was received after only three repetitions. Today, it takes thousands of occurrences if the message is received at all.

This makes effective advertising cost prohibitive for authors. However, annually we contribute a great deal in total to keep these old, tired, and useless modes of book advertising alive. We buy slots in print and Internet publications and the equivalence of e-mail spamming, and none of us see significant results. The total volume of it works against us.

The current generation is savvy about acquiring information, as well as how to separate the corporate appeals from what they desire. To some degree, most of us have adapted along those lines. For example, one premiere publishing trade magazine sells its cover to advertisers. This cover had always been a sign of “making it” in the industry, but I cannot tell you who or what was on the cover last week, much less in the last ten years. News radio stations prattle on about the next great mystery novel redux, but I can’t remember who or what they were talking about. A great article in a top writing association magazine had a large author advertisement on the opposing page, but I cannot recall the book or author. It might have been for the author who was the focus of the article, but I’ve obviously learned to filter out the noise, and so have you.

Some of us don’t want to give up on the big lie, especially new writers. They dream of fat book contracts, bestsellers, and forty-foot banners, but on publisher’s row in Manhattan, we have a better chance of getting hit by a taxi—a much better chance. The same is true for book advertising. Advertisers can provide circulation, visitor, and click data, but no one can provide a success rate (i.e. how it translates to actual sales), because it’s not sincerely traceable. So let’s line up a few realities about book promotion.

Print, radio, and television advertising is a bad bet for authors. Not only is it expensive and likely ignored, the target audience is a mere fraction of the people reached. In general, the reading public has always been a small portion of the entire population. Even if the advertising is done through a reader-specific outlet, we aren’t really paying attention after a handful of ads. Unless the author is a successful stockbroker, he or she will not have the resources to generate enough repetition to penetrate public awareness with advertising.

The author interview has always been an effective way to reach an audience. No matter the medium, readers come to a particular book through the author first. If the author is interesting or provides a compelling story or facts, then the reader will remember the author’s name and seek out the book.

Trusted secondary sources are valued by readers. Potential readers want to hear testimonies about a book from just about anyone but the author or publisher. Readers seek feedback from friends, commentary from known authors, the expertise of valued review publications, and the authority of reputable book awards. Each of these sources adds a layer of authenticity to the author and his/her book.

Word of mouth still works, only the methods of word of mouth have changed. A trusted book recommendation is king in the bookselling business. However, few people still stand on street corners or at cocktail parties and discuss the books they are reading. Social media is the new street corner of discussion, and here too, the personality of the author comes into play. The most compelling authors rarely mention their books. Like the author interview, people remember the author’s name and eventually seek out the book.

Let’s start employing more effective strategies through digital platforms. Leave the ads for soft drink and toothpaste companies. They have the cash, and everyone is interested in those items. An author’s audience is smaller and smarter, too. The goal is to draw an audience to the author and then create a feedback loop, which is the contemporary version of old fashion word of mouth. Within a feedback loop, readers will circulate book commentary that is both organically grown and culled from trusted voices of authority and expertise.

Christopher Klim is the author of several books including the novel, Idiot!, and the short collection, True Surrealism. He is currently working on a novel trilogy about the space program past, present, and future. See his popular series on publishing: The Book Killers.

The Second Best Thing I Learned Before Being Published

While finding a writing mentor was the most impactful factor in my path to publication, learning to obtain good editing was the second most important key to my success. Even more challenging than locating a talented editor was finding the right editor for me, and it wasn’t until that editor/writer relationship was fully evolved did I realize how essential it was for my growth. A good editor not only helps shape my story, he lets me know what I do well and where I need work.

During my twenty-year journey in the publishing industry, I’ve watched the job of proper editing being pushed down from the publishing houses, through the agent’s office (if you are lucky enough to have a good one), and to the author’s desk. While some editing has always rested with the author, a gradual increase in responsibilities has occurred until today where virtually everything but copy editing is thrust upon the author.

This is both frustrating and empowering. While proper editing requires a great deal of work and vigilance, the author has large control over who edits his work. And remember, an author cannot edit his own work. No writer can, and no successful author does. He cannot be completely objective regarding his strengths and weaknesses and what needs to be done with the story at hand.

So the two primary questions are: What does a good editor do? And how do you find one? I’ll offer some advice.

First of all, anyone can offer an opinion of your work, and they will, even if you don’t ask. Anyone with an English degree or even a published book can hang a shingle and offer editing services. However, an unskilled opinion, of which there are many, and the wrong editorial sensibilities can damage your work in progress, not to mention your course and psyche as a writer. Most opinions of your work should be reserved for street commentary on the Internet, and much of it has the value of gum stuck to your shoe.

The right editor will understand your genre, as well as the specific work at hand. There is no exception here. You do not want a great romance editor working on your fantasy novel or biography. While her talents as an editor may span pages, she must be able to prove her experience with actual published books within your genre as the result of her labor. She must also be able to provide references from the authors of those books. Read those books. Talk to those authors. Ask what the editor did for them and what the editor concentrated on during the process. If a prospective editor has little relevant experience, she brings nothing to the table that you can use as an author.

A good editor will understand you and what you need. Like a psychologist, editors tinker with the soul of your work. She must understand you as a person, what you are trying to accomplish, and have the patience to guide you toward the discoveries you need, no matter where you are in the artistic growth process. Schedule a conversation or a series of interviews to see if you want to work with a specific editor. Provide a sample chapter in order to view both her skill and her methodology as an editor. It is perfectly acceptable to pay for sample editing. Do not sign a contract for a long work unless you are completely comfortable and confident that this editor will help you.

Hiring an editor creates both a business and personal relationship that often extends beyond the book itself and lasts for years. For my first four published novels, I returned to the same editor over and over, and each time he was more insightful about the work and me as a writer. In fact, what I was trying to accomplish as a writer was first articulated, not by me, but by my trusted edited. A lover won’t identify your fingerprints as well. A talented editor that understands your work is worth his weight in books and will likely be a long-time friend and advocate for your work.

Useful articles on the logistics of finding an editor:

Christopher Klim is the author of several books including the novel, Idiot!, and the short collection, True Surrealism. He is currently working on a novel trilogy about the space program past, present, and future. See his popular series on publishing: The Book Killers.

Create a Feedback Loop for Book Marketing

For sixty millenniums, civilization has exchanged information by word of mouth. Ideas rise and fall in discussion where messages are repeated again and again with others until a generally held belief is developed. Little has changed, except the method of talk. Whether you are promoting a book or tube of toothpaste, the name and message must be repeated, and if you control a small group of messages about your book, you can build a feedback loop that will drive its popularity.

Any experienced author knows that few members of the media provide original book coverage. For a variety of reasons, reporters digest the media kit and whatever information is available on the newsfeeds and repackage the existing information as a fresh offering for their audience. They are echoing the available feedback and, most specifically, the message your media kit presents. When fresh material appears, you get to choose what to incorporate into your ongoing campaign.

Readers behave this way as well. When they visit the major Internet stopping points for reader-generated book feedback, such as Amazon or GoodReads. they will not only decide to read a favorably reviewed book, but they will likely post similar experiences. This works for negative feedback as well. Whether accurate or not, a negative feedback loop is almost impossible to defeat. Just ask Monica Lewinski. The cycle of negativity launched against her did not occur organically. It was generated for political purposes and has been nurtured for twenty years. Again, the key is to control your own message.

When building talking points for a publicity campaign, first decide if your book is timely or timeless. Whether it’s fiction or nonfiction, timely books can be attached to current and relevant subjects. Each day, the news media drives people through specific topics and trends. Just saying your book is related will garner media attention. If your book is lucky enough to relate to the topic du jour or you are a topical expert, make the messaging about only that issue until the news cycle burns out.

If your book is a timeless read, identify the genre or subject matter that best identifies your book and highlight the many ways that your book is different or better than what exists on the shelves. As the author, your experience should enter the discussion. Remember, first the reader comes to the author, and then the reader notices the book. Like the book, there should be a singular description about you that helps pique interest and focus the message.

With the recent saturation of Twitter and Facebook promotional pages, publishers admit that social media isn’t what it once was, and they are returning emphasis to the three tier media approach: local, regional, and national, where each level builds on the other until a large feedback loop is underway. This fact likely makes veteran authors chuckle. For years, they’ve worked news clippings within their media kits to focus the discussion regarding their books. These clippings, by the way, are easily reintroduced and reposted on social media platforms. So again, not a lot has changed since the dawn of civilization. A few standout facts, placed in front of an interested audience, will be repeated, and the positive feedback will pile up.

The US Review of Books seeds feedback loops with professional reviews sent to 15,000 monthly subscribers, including additional followers on GoodReads, Facebook, and Twitter.