Friday, September 29, 2017

Why Good Enough Means Way Better than Average



I once got yelled at for saying that I only took a book seriously once it got above 50 reviews when asked, “How many reviews is enough?”

The other answers seemed to be like, “I have ten. I think I’m doing pretty well.”

And they were doing well. I don’t mean to disparage how hard it is to get reviews, nor say that you should feel like a failure if you don’t have 50. But, let’s be honest: Most self-published books are poorly crafted. I can’t say that I like the majority of the traditionally published I read, that they don’t have flaws, but you certainly can expect a much greater amount of half-assery from a random indie book than a random one from Penguin. Anyone who reads indie books knows how amazingly awful some can be.

Because of this, self-publishers have a harder time of selling their work - Though, fortunately, the low bar some indies hold for themselves makes it easier to regain some credibility. Have a good cover, a clean summary and first couple of pages? You’re already doing a world of difference.

I don’t read reviews for information. Five stars aren’t exactly the most trustworthy. One stars tend to be biased and pissy. In only one case did I find the reviews to accurately predict my reading experience, and it was for a highly successful book that only a minority of one-stars agreed with my dislike. Usually, even if I didn’t enjoy a read, the reasons other people talked about hating it had nothing to do with the problems I felt.

So what good are reviews? Why a number thing?

I have a lot of books to read. I’m very backed up. I’m not too fast anyway, and reading is put down on the priority list. I rarely go on the hunt for a random book, and these days I pretty much buy new ones for one of three reasons: Someone gushed about it, I want to support the author, or I feel like it’s something I ought to have read.

Self-publishers predominately fall into the second category. I meet them online. I follow them. I consider if I want to spend the money on their book. I am so broke right now that I even have to be careful with a few bucks, but even before that I am inundated with so many options that I could easily break the bank by buying them.

Considering my limited amount of time, I tend to prioritize people when they have something that I might actually want to read. Sensible, no? This typically starts with genre, but there are a lot of people with pretty good ideas and desirable enough settings which means that genre doesn’t take enough out of the running. As for summary, well, I’ve never been convinced by a book’s pitch, regardless of the situation.

Next I look at the cover and if it seems homemade, I get suspicious. This may seem shallow, but it actually as a unifying link with the quality of writing: If the author doesn’t see the flaws in his cover art, didn’t push it further, half-assed it, it tends to be reasons of personality, which will mean he is unlikely to be any better at doing those things in his writing. Not impossible, just typical.

I’ll read the first couple of pages, but again, rarely does a book hook me in like that. I have to be emotionally invested—I have to know I’m going to read it and finish it—and so for deciding to buy it, it’s likely that no matter what your beginning is, I’m not going to get interested. I have to warm up.

This is where the reviews come into play. Despite what we, and I, say, self-publishers often being really sloppy, there are also many that aren’t. They are polished, professional, and seem to have their shit together. So even though this process cuts out any major issues (which is why these things are so important), there’s still a huge number left over in a month, not to mention they’re competing with the books I’ve already bought and still have to read.

They’ve either slightly gotten my attention or not. If I was amazed, I wouldn’t get this far; I’d have already bought it. By the point we get to reviews, I’m on the fence. The author hasn’t gained my trust yet, and that is vital.

Getting 50 reviews is pretty impressive. A hundred or more tells me your book is successful. This doesn’t seem to make sense, but you have to realize that most novels sell based on word of mouth. “A friend gushing about it.” It suggests that not only have you sold at least that many books (probably more because of how few people review), not only that you’re a dedicated and diligent worker, but also that people liked it enough to talk about it.

My favorite book, an indie book, I found through a blog post, a review someone had done. Normally I don’t trust blog reviewers (Five stars for everyone!) but her enthusiasm was genuine and made me want some of that emotion.

Lots of books have no stars. Many have three to five. Getting above ten is a feat, and I’m not positive I would be able to do it without a lot of groveling. But this is a time to look outward-in, not the other way around. Just because it’s difficult to do something doesn’t mean that it’s impressive. For the writer getting ten reviews may have taken months and a butt-load of labor, but for the reader, well, I’m going through hundreds of self-published books monthly. It’s not that hard to find something with ten reviews.

The reason getting around 50 is impressive is because so few people do it. It’s not a dealbreaker for me in any case, but it’s a pretty obvious way to gauge if there’s something different about it. Even if it’s just the work gone into it, when you’re trying to sort through a ridiculous pile of options, something like that is going to stand out, while something with a moderate amount of reviews is going to be… just that.

The man who became annoyed with me went on a rant about how difficult it was to get that many reviews, bemoaning my snobbery and keeping him out of the favored circle. I know it’s hard, that’s the point. It means something when you do it.

You take fifty of the best and brightest. You put them in the same competition. Forty of them have a success rate of ten. The rest have an upwards of 50. One has over 100. The competition may be stupid, it may not factor into genuine quality, but you can see why, if all we have to go by is this measurement of success, we’re going to take the top ten and ignore the first forty—even if the average Joe would hardly be able to get one.

I’m not saying to worry about reviews, necessarily. Nor do I mean to invalidate the effort it takes to even get a handful. But when asking questions about outsiders’ opinions, it’s important to remember that you are being compared to others, and ‘good enough’ isn’t ever going to be some absolute number. It will change based on what those around you are doing.

Sometimes it sucks, but that’s the point. If it were easy, everyone would do it.



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