Sunday, July 28, 2019

419. Indie Publishing: A Breakthrough or a Rip-off?


My latest book, the fourth title in my Metropolis series of historical novels set in nineteenth-century New York.

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A story of the strangest friendship that ever was: a dapper young bank thief and the detective hired by the banks to apprehend him


"What a remarkable novel!  Clifford Browder's The Eye That Never Sleeps is an exciting cat and mouse game between a detective and a bank thief that is simultaneously so much more.  A lively, earthy stylist with a penchant for using just the right word, Browder captures a city pullulating with energy.  I loved this book right down to its satisfying, poignant ending." --  Five-star Amazon review by Michael P. Hartnett.

"New York City in the mid-nineteenth century is described in vivid detail. Both the decadent activities of the wealthy and the struggles of the common working class portray the life of the city."  --  Four-star NetGalley review by Nancy Long.  

"Fascinating!"  --  Five-star NetGalley review by Jan Tangen.

For the full reviews of the above three reviewers, go here and scroll down. 

"Well written, flowing with a feeling for the time and the characters."  --  Reader review by Bernt Nesje.  

The Eye That Never Sleeps is certain to amaze and engage not just historical mystery fans, but anyone seeking an exciting new read.  --  Five-star Readers' Favorite review by K.C. Finn.  

Available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

Also ...

My nonfiction work Fascinating New Yorkers has been reviewed by The US Review of Books. Reviewer Gabriella Tutino says, "There's something for everyone here in this collection of profiles, and it serves as a source of inspiration for readers who love NYC." For the whole review, click on US Review.

For more about my other books, go here.

                                      INDIE  PUBLISHING: 

         Recently I paid $201 to Readers’ Favorite, an online book review and book contest site, for five express reviews for my new novel, The Eye That Never Sleeps.  I splurged, for this is their most expensive plan, bringing you 5 reviews in 2 to 3 weeks.  You can also get 1 or 3 reviews for less, especially if you are willing to wait longer.  I did this because my novel had received only 2 pre-publication reviews from NetGalley, even though many authors with my publisher have received 10.  The cost of NetGalley was shared with my publisher, my cost being $399.  Readers’ Favorite publishes only four- and five-star reviews, which reduces the risk of a bad result for authors.  I got 2 five-star and 3 four-star reviews.  But their offer of a gold seal to stick on my book, proclaiming it a 5-star winner, I rejected.  They wanted $50 for 250 1.5-inch seals, and I know a rip-off when I smell one.  But their online seal costs nothing, so I took it.

I then notified my publisher, Black Rose Writing, of the five reviews.

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         The publisher’s reaction surprised me.  He urged me not to use Readers’ Favorite in the future, stating that my five reviews were worth less than one.  Readers’ Favorite reviews don’t carry a lot of weight, he explained, since they are almost always positive.  He recommended two other review sites instead.

         I thanked him for the alternative suggestions, but took exception to his view of Readers’ Favorite reviews.  Mine were not done slapdash.  They are substantial, intelligent, and sensitive, and have been especially good in appraising the historical setting, and not just the characters and plot.  (To see the reviews, go here.)  Five reviewers who had never heard of me or my books have now read and reacted to one of them in a positive way.  Their reviews grade the book's appearance, plot, development, formatting, and marketability separately, leading to the overall opinion that is the reviewer's final grade.  In addition to which, the author gets to grade the reviewer.  These are the most comprehensive reviews that I have ever received.  In short, I got my money's worth.

         Furthermore, as I have pointed out to my publisher, when people come to my stand at a book fair, they are impressed by good reviews, without knowing anything about the reviewers.  Just as, if they see a gold sticker on a book proclaiming it a WINNER of an award in some book contest, as is the case with another of my books, they are impressed, even though they’ve never heard of the contest.  Good reviews nudge them toward buying, and so does an award.  And let's face it, we authors are out to nudge folks into buying.

         This may sound like a cop-out, but I think that I and my publisher are both right.  He is right to disparage review outfits that take authors’ money and give suspiciously positive reviews to all comers, just as I am right in insisting that, at least in this case, I got something of value out of the reviews.  Since then I have consulted the Alliance of Independent Authors, a global nonprofit association of self-publishing authors founded in 2012.  Their award and contest ratings, designed to separate out the valid ones from the dubious ones, give Readers’ Favorite a caution rating, their lowest.  (Good guys get recommended, bad guys get caution.)  So score 1 for my publisher.  With further online research I found a discussion of Readers’ Favorite by a number of authors in 2016.  About half the authors were leery of the outfit, while the other half were satisfied with their reviews and voiced no complaint.  So opinion was, and still is, divided.

         This brings up a gutsy fundamental question: Should authors have to pay for reviews?  This practice, so reviled in politics, now dominates the “indie” (i.e., independent) publishing world, made up of small presses and self-publishing services.  Which is my world as an author.  Thanks to POD (print on demand), there is no need for publishers’ warehouses, or for nooks and crannies of an author’s tiny big-city apartment, to be crammed with unsold books.  No book is printed, until an order for it is received.  This has revolutionized publishing, as a host of small presses and self-publishing services have sprung up to fill the gap left by the bottom-line-obsessed big publishers, who for most writers are inaccessible.  Today, it has never been easier to get a book published.  If small presses reject an author’s work, the author can self-publish through a service designed to do exactly that.  So the market is flooded with small-press and self-published books, some of  them excellent, and some of them just plain junk.  A lifelong fan of sci fi, for instance, having always dreamed of doing a sci-fi novel of his own, can – at a cost – do it, even though it will differ in no way from a thousand other sci-fi novels on the market.  Mediocrity triumphs.

         So the whole indie publishing world has bypassed the gatekeepers.  And who are, or were, the gatekeepers?  First, the five big presses, all based in New York, that read only agented submissions: HarperCollins, Macmillan, Penguin Random House, Simon & Schuster, and Hachette.  (Hachette -- isn't that a French publisher?  Yes, and a big one, but with a division based in New York.)  Obsessively concerned with sales and little else, up till now the Big Five have dominated the market.  Also keeping the gate, and mostly keeping it shut, are the agents, who for new authors without contacts are almost inaccessible.  In another post (#407, “Damn the Gatekeepers, or Why I Go with Small Presses or Self-Publish”), I have related my misadventures with agents, and explained why I prefer small presses or self-publishing, a decision that I still endorse today.  Indie authors know that their chances of making the New York Times bestseller list, or even getting a review in the Times or some other big-name publication, are just about nil.  This means that a vast segment of the reading public will never hear of us, and we accept that.  But as the indie publishing world has surged, available reviewers are flooded with books to review.  And so, this being a capitalist society where everything has its price, reviewers charge money.

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         The indie publishing world has now become a huge machine for getting authors to part with their cash.  Everybody wants our money.  We have to decide which deals are worth the cost, and which not.  Yes, we can get some of our friends to do reviews of our books at no cost, and some readers will do the same unbidden by the author.  But as everyone in this business – publishers, editors, fellow authors, readers, and reviewers – keep proclaiming in a resonant chorus, the more reviews, the better.  So authors are wooed by reviewer outfits citing the impact of their reviews, as attested in glowing terms by outrageously successful authors.  How can authors not be tempted by these offers promising “honest” reviews, meaning that favorable results are not guaranteed?  Here are the reviews we need … for a price.

         I mentioned earlier that the Alliance for Independent Authors rates book awards and contests.  According to them, Readers’ Favorite reviews merit their lowest rating, caution, a finding that I, at least in part, disagree with.  I have now read through their ratings of some 118 book awards and contests, and find that only a measly few survive their scrutiny and earn their top rating, recommended.  Such ratings risk being too exclusive, too pure, for the grimy world we live in.

         Among book contests with the rating of caution are two that gave a WINNER status to my nonfiction title No Place for Normal: New York / Stories from the Most Exciting City in the World (Mill City Press, 2015).  My book won the Tenth Annual National Indie Excellence Award for Regional Non-Fiction, and first place in the Travel category of the 2015-2016 Reader Views Literary Awards. 

These and similar contests have been criticized for offering a large number of awards for books in various categories, instead of just one, two, or three prizes in all.  Yet it’s precisely because of those categories that I entered these contests, anticipating less competition, for instance, in a nonfiction category Travel / Regional / Northeast.  And it paid off twice, plus “honorable mention” in a third contest.  “Honorable mention" is a nice way of saying "semifinalist," which isn’t worth much in itself, since it is shared with a host of other authors.  But it acquires a degree of significance if linked to the two first-place awards.  And since the “honorable mention” was in the Eric Hoffer Book Awards contest, which enjoys the coveted recommended rating from the Alliance, so much the better.

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          So now that I know how my two first-place contests are rated by the Alliance, do I reject them?  No way!  Regardless of that rating, they help me sell books.  The Indie Excellence Awards gave me – for a price (everybody wants my money) – gold stickers proclaiming the book a WINNER.  Those stickers now adorn every copy of the book in my possession.  I only regret that the Reader Views contest did not, for a reasonable price, offer stickers as well.  (It didn’t offer stickers at all, thus forgoing a juicy bit of additional revenue, which is hardly the American way.)   At book fairs, people who see that book with its sticker couldn’t care less what contest it won, as long as it was a WINNER.  What sells, sells.

         No reviewer is, or up till now has been, more esteemed than Kirkus.  Founded in 1933 and based in New York City, its magazine has acquired a reputation for providing unbiased professional reviews.  Now it publishes both in print and online.  For a new author, to be reviewed by Kirkus – favorably, one hopes – is a dream.  A Kirkus review can put you on the literary map and launch your career as a writer.  But what are the chances that an indie author, self-published or published by some small new press, will be reviewed?  Next to nothing, of course.  But all is not lost.  For a mere $425 and up, Kirkus, out of the goodness of its heart and the munificence of its greed, offers a “traditional” 250-word review in 7 to 8 weeks.  And for $575 in the same time frame, you can have an “expanded” review of about 500 words, with an expedited option for $725.  A positive review can even earn the coveted Kirkus Star.  And if the review is negative, you can choose not to publish it, thus making it disappear into the sinkhole of oblivion.
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         Sound familiar?  Very much like the deal offered by Readers’ Favorite, as described at the start of this article.  If Readers’ Favorite, now exposed as an upstart copycat, is to be condemned, why not the illustrious Kirkus as well?  But those lucky authors who, having paid good cash, get positive reviews, will fight for Kirkus.  Who wouldn’t?  And if they get the Kirkus Star, they will defend Kirkus to the death.  But for me, Kirkus has tainted its once unblemished reputation.  Kirkus is a whore.

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         But whores exist, because there’s a paying market.  The more reviews, the better.  All those awards and contests rated caution know this well, and thrive.  And I know it too, and in this grimy world will get reviews where I can.  Free, when possible; otherwise, for a price.  Free or paid for, the dear little things count, they sell.  And if even bestselling authors confess to having paid for Kirkus reviews -- and they do confess it --  maybe someday I will, too.  If you're going to patronize a whore, you might as well take, for a price, the best-looking one on the block.

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    WINNER     WINNER     WINNER     WINNER     WINNER          

Coming soon:  Lady Gaga: She's crazy, but I dig her music.

©   2019   Clifford Browder

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