Wednesday, March 27, 2013

My Guest: Stephen Leather

My Guest this week really needs no introduction. I would never have the temerity to say he's a fellow writer of thrillers because he's in a league far removed from my own humble offerings. As an avid reader of his novels from way back, it's my great pleasure to introduce bestselling author

Stephen Leather 

The Writer & Book Reviews

When was the last time you read a novel that you hated? Read it right the way through and got to the end and thought “That was the worst book I’ve ever read”?

For me, the answer to that question is “Never”.

I have never read a novel that I didn’t enjoy. Okay, I might have started a few and stopped after a couple of chapters, but if I’m not enjoying a book I don’t force myself to finish it. Life is too short to be reading books that aren’t enjoyable.

But the reason I don’t read bad books is that I’m selective about the books that I buy.  The best way to get a recommendation for a book is word of mouth – to be told by a trusted friend that something is worth reading.  Some of the best books I have ever read came from recommendations from friends – Silence Of The Lambs, Green River Rising, Bravo Two Zero.

But even with a glowing recommendation, I would still look at the book before buying.  Yes, it’s wrong to judge a book by a cover but the simple fact is that a cover says a lot about a book. And so does the blurb on the back. Even the title.  Then before buying I always perform my own personal litmus test. I flick through to a page in the middle of the book and read a paragraph or two at random. If it’s well written, if it flows, then I’ll buy the book.

The equivalent in the brave new world of eBooks is the sample, where you can look at a chunk of the book for free before buying.  That facility alone means that you should never buy a book that you are going to hate. Or even dislike.

So here’s the thing. When I go to Amazon, why do I see so many one-star reviews from people saying that that had to force themselves to finish such and such a book,  that it was awful, that it was the worst book they had ever read? Why do they put themselves through such torture? Why did they buy the book in the first place?

The review system, and the way books can be ranked with between one star and five stars, gives everyone a voice, the chance to say how much they enjoyed – or hated – a book.  And sites like Amazon give everyone the chance to express their opinion – and to do it anonymously.  In a perfect world this would allow the buying public to get a general consensus about which books are good, and which aren’t. But sadly the world isn’t perfect.  Take one of the greatest English novels of the twentieth century, John Le Carre’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.  One of the best thrillers ever written, but also one of the best novels.  As of today Tinker Tailor has 101 five-star reviews. But it also has ten one-star reviews.  Ten people think that Tinker Tailor is one of the worst novels ever published.  (And one of those reviewers said he couldn’t finish it, nor could he finish Catch 22).

John Le Carre is one of the greatest living writers, there is no question of that. I know that I will never produce work of the quality of his novels. That’s not to say that all his books are perfect. I didn’t like the ending of Absolute Friends, and if I had reviewed it I would probably have given it four stars for that reason.  But as of today, while Absolute Friends has ten five-star reviews it has two one-star reviews and five two-star reviews.  That means that two people think that Absolute Friends is one of the worst books in the English language.

Yes, of course everyone has the right to an opinion.  When someone tells me that they believe that the earth is flat or that the Americans didn’t land on the moon, I say “God Bless” and let them get on with it.  But I do fear there is something flawed with a system that allows people to express opinions that are so clearly wrong.

Like all writers, I get my fair share of bad reviews.  But in the good old days of real books, it was newspaper and magazine journalists who wrote reviews. And they would be balanced, and considered, and thoughtful.  And in fact most books never got reviews.  My publisher would always be thrilled to get even a few paragraphs in the Daily Mail or the Sun.  The vast majority of newly-published books were simply ignored.

But with sites like Amazon, everyone can review, and everyone’s review is treated equally.  An Amazon Top 100 reviewer who has reviewed thousands of books and written hundreds of thousands of words, is treated the same as an anonymous reviewer who has only ever reviewed one book. And in a lot of cases, reviewers leave reviews without any evidence that they have actually purchased the book. 

There’s no doubt that a proportion of reviewers abuse the system. So what is a writer to do if he gets a review that is clearly malicious or just plain stupid?  I’ve been given one-star reviews because I wrote a novel in the first person and the reviewer didn’t like first person books.  I’ve received a two-star review because the reviewer didn’t like the fact that I didn’t use chapters in my Spider Shepherd thrillers.  I’ve had reviewers saying that my writing was turgid and awful.  So my big question would be – why did you buy it in the first place?

I think it was eBook pioneer John Locke who said that if you got a bad review it was because the reviewer was outside your target market.  One of the things I have noticed is that if I price a book cheaply, I tend to get a higher percentage of bad reviews.  I think this proves that what John says is correct – because when it’s cheap people take less care about what they are buying, which means you get bought by readers outside your target market. Without fail, if I raise the price of a book, the percentage of bad reviews falls!

Last month I self-published a new crime thriller – Take Two. I priced it at the Amazon minimum of 99 cents, and it did well – it spent a month in the UK Kindle Top 10 and in February alone sold almost 40,000 copies.  But I did get a lot of bad reviews. As of today, it has 188 reviews of which 67 are five-star, 38 are four-star and 23 are one-star.  So more than ten per cent of my reviewers think Take Two is one of the worst books ever published.  The thing is, it isn’t, of course. It’s a fun crime thriller, set in the world of TV soaps, and it’s as well-written as any of my books.  But it has clearly been purchased by people who were expecting something else. Because it was cheap they probably didn’t bother reading the sample first. That’s the equivalent of taking a book off the shelf in a shop and buying it without opening it.  What I do find confusing is the number of reviewers who claim to be fans but who hated Take Two enough to give it one-star.  Yet those ‘fans’ have never reviewed any other books of mine. I would have thought a ‘fan’ would at least have reviewed a few of the books they had enjoyed.

Do bad reviews matter? You know, in the grand scheme of things I don’t think they do. I think most buyers realise that the review system is flawed and pretty much ignore it. They realise that an unknown author with ten five-star reviews for his only book is probably being supported by his family and friends. And that a lot of the one-star reviews have very little to do with the quality of the writing and more to do with trolls being trolls.

When I first started self-publishing eBooks, I would often confront people who had given me bad reviews, especially when they were clearly malicious. I learnt pretty quickly that it is a pointless exercise.  Either you wouldn’t get a response (because the account was only opened to post the one bad review) or the reviewer would react by saying how I dare I criticise them and that I had no right to query their judgement. I’ve learned that it’s best to say nothing. In fact, it’s best not to read reviews at all.

When self-publishing kicked off, Amazon were quite good about removing reviews that were clearly malicious, but their attitude has changed recently and now requests to have bad reviews taken down are met with a standard email saying that they are trying to encourage a diversity of opinion.

So here’s the simple truth.  Everyone is entitled to their opinion. And everyone is entitled to express that opinion.  All you can do as a writer is to grin and bear it. The best advice I got was from eBook guru Joe Konrath who said that writers shouldn’t read reviews of their work.  Or Google themselves. Writers should do what writers are supposed to do – write.

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Stephen Leather is the author of more than thirty novels and is one of the UK's most successful eBook publishers. His book 'The Basement' topped the Kindle bestseller list in the UK and the US and in 2011 Lee Child was the only British author who sold more eBooks. His latest thriller, 'False Friends', was in the Sunday Times Top 10 hardback bestseller list. Before working as a full-time writer he was a staff journalist on newspapers such as The Daily Mirror, The Daily Mail, The Times and the South China Morning Post.

Stephen Leather's website is where you can find information about all of his novels as well as many other interesting facts about this prolific bestselling author. Stephen can also be followed on Twitter @stephenleather

Thank you, Stephen, for a post which gives all writers plenty of food for thought.

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