Friday, January 30, 2015


The keyboard is always waiting
The popular readers' site, Goodreads, is democracy in action; anybody can use it and everybody's opinion has the same value. It also proves the old adage that you can't please all of the people all of the time. An author learns pretty quick that however much blood, sweat, heart and soul you poured into your literary baby, there are plenty of readers out there for whom it is just not their thing.

And that's okay. The sooner you learn to tune out the babble of conflicting opinions, the sooner you can get back to the keyboard!

Most authors set up a page on Goodreads before their book's official release, when the only people who have read it are the author's mom and a few close, personal friends. So those first reviews are glowing, four or five stars out of five, racking up a 4.5 or even 5.0 "average rating." Then the pub date arrives, and the (dreaded) public starts chiming in.

I try not to obsess over my ratings, rankings, and/or stars. If you get all euphoric over a terrific rating, you feel obliged to get all miserable when your rating falls. So I'm not constantly on my Goodreads page; I'd rather be writing.

But Art Boy has no such qualms. When Alias Hook was released, he was checking my ratings several times a day. And he began to notice something weird. Within about a month, my book started racking up a ton of one-star ratings. Often, the readers who posted them came from someplace where my book was not even available (like Libya, or Saudi Arabia, although books can be ordered online, of course). And in every case, the person had either just joined Goodreads or added their list of ratings that month.
I couldn't be in better company, but still...

But strangest of all: in every case, Alias Hook was included in a list of 20 or so titles, most of them literary classics, each of which had only received a one-star rating. And it was always the same 10-20 titles: To Kill A Mockingbird, 1984, Romeo & Juliet, The Great Gatsby, Animal Farm, Little Women, Great Expectations, Lord Of the Flies, Pride and Prejudice, Wuthering Heights, Jane Eyre, and a few others. Company I'd be thrilled to have my book compared to in any other circumstances!

Often, these readers' lists only included 20 books—as if they had been asked to score 20 titles to qualify for something, and there was one list of titles that everybody was using. And then they'd just hastened down the list, ticking off one star for each title to get on with it.

I have no problem with a one-star review. No, really; if a person reads my book and decides it's not for them and says why, that's a legitimate response. The problem here was a sudden outbreak of one-star reviews posted by people who had pretty obviously not read the book. Bogus ratings that were skewing my precious "average rating" to way down below the Mendoza Line.
Help! Get me off this grid!
 At last, I broke down and contacted the social media diva at my publishing house for advice. I didn't expect anyone to purge the dozens of bogus ratings off my Alias Hook page; I'm sure that's contrary to the Tao of Goodreads. But, I asked, could I at least get my book taken off that list?

And here's what we found out: there was no "list," per se. But there was an algorithm (as opposed to "editorial selection," we were told, which could have been adjusted). Somehow, my book had been randomly sorted in with all these classic titles that were presented to incoming Goodreaders to be "rated" before they could move on to the next level of Goodreadership.

Why? How? Forget it, Jake, it's technology. It was like Tron, my poor little book trapped forever in an algorithm, battling to get out. An apt metaphor, I suppose, for the way James Hook is trapped forever in the Neverland, if you want to get all abstract.

The good news is, after another few weeks, the program shifted gears, and my one-star reviews stabilized. The downside is, now, whenever a new one-star review appears on my page (much less often than before), I have to admit I've earned it.

Still, this can be very liberating. As soon as you realize how impossible it is to please everybody, you can give yourself permission to stop trying, and go write your book the way it needs to be written.

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