Readers Know Your Shenanigans

The studies are in, and they strongly suggest that readers are smart cookies. Indeed, word addicts possess more fluid and crystallized intelligence. They’re more empathetic. They have wider vocabularies, less stress, and better memory. They are the superior nerd!

So why the hell do some authors treat readers like they’re suckers?

Look buddy. If you’re buying automated book reviews, readers will catch you. Nor can you force your novel to “become a viral sensation.” Even the almighty Big Five can’t do that. If they could, we’d have a new bestseller every week.

“What?” you may ask, with statistically probable innocence. “What do you mean? What ‘tricks’ have been tried before?”

Oh, let me count the ways…

Review Rates

It doesn’t take a genius to sniff out something not kosher about Amazon or Goodread reviews. There’s plenty of red flags, but the earliest is the sheer quantity in a short time.

Amazon easily catches these surges. There are legitimate exceptions, but I’m going to play the odds and assume you’re not Brandon Sanderson. Rather, when a no-name poofs into existence with thousands of 5-stars, Amazon puts the kibosh on that. Fast. This has left middling numbers with staggered dates as a gray marshland, ripe for analysis. For most self-published books, it’s a pretty basic formula.

Patent pending. Annnnnnnnnnnnnnd rejected.

If someone slaps a book on the market and there’s only five reviews in the first week, there’s little reason to doubt their honesty. Probably just friends and family “priming the pump.” That starting number can rise some and I’d think nothing of it. 20 reviews? Guess the writer has a few fans. 50 in a couple of weeks? I’d check Google, see if maybe this author is more up-and-coming than I realize. It’d be surprising that a press or agent hasn’t pinched them yet.

But wait! There’s more factors! What if it’s a multiauthor anthology? Pooling fanbases is legit. If eight authors each got only two people to review, that’s 16 right there. Again, all fair. No cause for alarm.

Still, red flags begin to appear when a self-published author gets hundreds of reviews quickly. There’s usually two possibilities:

  • The author/publisher had a long pre-release phase. Maybe they used a service like NetGalley to ready reviews. If they have the patience and money, good on them.
  • The reviews are generated by bots at a rate that comes under Amazon’s radar. Shame! Shame!

How can you tell which is which? Well, the first way’s an honest path. Review quality is one indication (see below). If a novel’s website was readied a year before release, they might have cultivated their marketing approach. Still, most self-published authors aren’t that careful and considered, and services like NetGalley aren’t cheap.

On the other hand, if a self-published author is trying to ninja their way onto the top seller’s list, they’re gonna get busted…

Review Quality

There’s a few reasons why organic reviews are challenging to obtain. Plenty of people prefer to just read, not write. Some fret over how their endorsement will be judged on a public platform. Others are willing but, heh… did you enjoy creating book reports in elementary school? Mmhmm, I didn’t think so.

All of this explains why sorting organic and artificial responses can be difficult. Generally, it’s patterns that discern the real from fake.

  • If the writing style and word choices feel the same.
  • If they’re all one-liners or paraphrasers.
  • How generic they are.

After this, reviews tend to fall into roughly one of four categories.

The One-Liner: Nobody who finishes your book intends to write one in reply. They just call it like they see it. The occasional “great read” or “pretty good” is fine. Yet if several of these appear in a short amount of time, it looks suspicious.

The Paragraph Paraphraser: Two or three sentences, cutting to the chase. What they like, what they didn’t. No frills, no spoilers. Usually these impart no more information than what the blurb offers though, so it’s tough to decide if they’re the real McCoy.

The Genuine: A long paragraph and up. There’s a good chance these are real, especially if they discuss a character, scene, or specific story. Cross your fingers, hope for 4-stars or better.

The Blogger: Oh, the saints and devils of Amazon. These guys probably aimed for at least 300 words. Why? Because that’s the recommended SEO minimum for the blog they’ve mirrored these essays on. Whether they loved or hated it, audiences will probably consider their points. Making that took effort… and that reflects on the byliner(s).

Partial Promoter Problem

It happens every week. Sometimes every day.

Let’s pretend you’re an author with pages hot off the press. Promotion time! But where? How? Well, what about Facebook groups? Ahhh, here’s one dedicated to Urban Fantasy for example. Answer a few questions, wait for the admin’s approval. A moment later, you mutter in a hacker’s voice, “I’m in.”

Whoa. Nice energy. Folks chatting about the latest and greatest from Seanan McGuire or Jim Butcher. Maybe discussing whether Bright was a good film, or if the latest TV series is thematically Urban Fantasy. The community is so active, even the lowbrow, recycled memes are getting likes, for cryin’ out loud!

Ah ha!” you shout, frightening the cat. “These readers will surely love my latest masterpiece!”

That’s when one of three things will happen:

  1. Checking the group rules, you discover that authors are not allowed to promote their own work, or can only do so in select, easily ignored ways.
  2. You willfully disregard the first point, post a link to your novel, and are subsequently warned and/or banned.
  3. There’s no rule against it! Eagerly you make a post! Crap! Typo! Edited, fixed! Whew, no one noticed! Congratulations, you’re a marketing genius for discovering your audience!

… except that nobody liked that. Hang on while I drink this truth serum.

Mmm, grape flavored. Someone who promotes their own work isn’t an impartial judge. In the early days of self-publishing, readers probably gave these confident scriveners a shot. Then dozens came. Followed by hundreds… before thousands. Audiences got a touch jaded of wannabes wasting their time and money on books that were clichéd, unsatisfying, and went nowhere.

Don’t start with the defensive, “but my book is great!” Save it. You know what? It probably is a good book. Because you’re smart enough to read my blog, and intelligent people generally tend to be better writers.

Convincing readers to lower their shields will always be part of the challenge. They have so little reason to trust you. Especially since you’re selling something they don’t already need or know they want. This is true for publishers and editors too. Readers are more receptive to fans who have nothing to gain. Impartial validators.

Of course, some writers try to get around this. A little technique I call…

The Buddy System

I’m just chilling on Discord, chatting away about crap. All of a sudden, ding! A new member has joined! They’re super excited to talk about Banner Saga, Degenesis, fandom galore! No one minds a little fresh energy, right up until…

“Hey, so my buddy has a…”

  • “Twitch stream.”
  • “YouTube channel.”
  • “game of his own in development.”

“Suuuure, you’re his buddy,” I think. Could be a friend. Perhaps he’s the video editor. Or maybe he’s the guy himself on an anonymous account. Cannot verify. The forthcoming request varies in audacity. If it’s “here’s some fan art,” then hey! Alright, that’s cool! Even a link to “a post analyzing the game” might be worth a read.

After that, requests can get conceited. Once, a guy appeared out of the ether, asking if we could add his [chum’s?] videos to a pinned message of trusted tools and tutorials. Another fellow politely asked us to watch a [friend’s?] stream. All good the first time, before he botted the link every, single, day.

Got a leeeettle bit stale.

With books, I’m sure the same technique is being tried. Rather than self-promote, the author asks a cute friend or sock puppet account to do it instead. It’s more insidious and harder to notice, yet when that “fan” doesn’t hang with the community, people will spot bait.

Oh, and I saved the craziest for last. While slushing through Welcome to San Cicaro, Andrew and I got a cover letter from a friend submitting for the writer! Guess they figured it looked better if someone else pitched it? There was mucho back and forth between us, trying to ensure the author’s identity. Darn shame too. The submission was pretty alright. Yet for legal reasons, we just could not touch that…

Caveat Scriptor

Look fellow scriveners. Before calling it a day, I want to mention a final category of shenanigans—the ones we play on ourselves.

Readers aren’t fair. Why should they be? It’s their time and their money. The earth was salted before we arrived. Even before the e-book age. For every thousand novels that have failed, there will be that one titan of a title you’ll be compared against. As if you have a chance against legendary authors who wrote their Magnum Opuses decades before your birth.

Still, don’t be a pointless masochist.

I’ve seen a couple of instances of “free book collectors.” These “readers” blatantly admit to taking free e-books which they file away and never read. If someone says they’ll critique your manuscript and they don’t deliver, don’t ask them again. Keep a list of names. They broke their word, so don’t give them anymore of your own.

If you’re springing for online advertising and accruing no sales, stop. Give yourself a date to call it a day and try some other marketing approach.

Last, accept when something isn’t working. If your Urban Fantasy historical fiction isn’t selling, pat yourself on the back for a noble experiment and move on. If the market for romance short stories sucks, stop. Readers vote with their dollars.

We love the hustler. We just hate being hustled. Respecting that line is part of the game.

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