Problematic issues re Amazon reviews

Whatever social media you use, you doubtless see regular polite/pleading reminders from your favourite authors about how important online reviews are these days, and reviews on Amazon most of all.

This isn’t just needy writers looking for some ego boost. Publishers tell us authors time and again how reviews drive vital visibility when their numbers reach the ever-shifting tipping points that trigger different promotional algorithms. How even readers who don’t shop at Amazon use the site to see what other people think of books that interest them, as they decide to buy. How publishers can even use a title’s level of reviews as one measure of a writer’s popularity and a possible predictor (among others) of interest in a possible future project.

So please support your favourite authors with Amazon reviews. As long as you are allowed to. This is where all this starts to get problematic. A pal thought to do me a favour by leaving a genuinely favourable review on Amazon only to have it rejected because their spend on the site over the last six months didn’t reach the required threshold. I went to see what was what and found this on Amazon UK –
“To contribute to Community Features (for example, Customer Reviews, Customer Answers), you must have spent at least £40 on Amazon.co.uk using a valid payment card in the past 12 months. Promotional discounts don’t qualify towards the £40 minimum.”

Since I remarked on this on social media, various other people have confirmed that the same thing had happened to them. Though what that qualifying spend might be clearly varies from time to time and place to place. That doesn’t surprise me. We already know that Amazon regularly tweaks their algorithms’ review number trigger points as they look for the best way to maximise their revenue. Other things also became apparent. You don’t have to be buying books to qualify, just stuff, because this isn’t about books, it’s about Amazon making money. Indeed, when some people found they were unable to post reviews they were told that their Kindle purchases didn’t count because the spend had to be on physical goods. Whether or not an Amazon Prime subscription counts seems to vary as well.

Why are Amazon doing this? The obvious answer is it’s a countermeasure against bots and review spam. That’s fair enough, but it’s a very, very blunt instrument. It does nothing to stop astroturfing (faking ‘grassroots’ support) by someone with a lot of pals who buy sufficient stuff online. But that’s not Amazon’s concern. They’re in business to make money, first last and always.

So what can we do? Well, the reason that reviews matter is what sells books is word of mouth recommendation. That’s been the case for ever. All the Internet has done has enabled us to tell each other about a good new book in a whole lot of new ways. So carry on doing that – but now, please try to remember to look beyond Amazon when you want to support an author by boosting a book and when you’re looking for recommendations. If you have the time and inclination, check out Goodreads maybe, and/or look for the bookbloggers that share your particular interests.

Whatever social media you use, whenever you can spare the time for a quick mention, even just a line or so, it all adds up and it all helps to boost the signal, and that’ll help keep your favourite authors writing. Thanks.

Another diary update, and another preview for The Green Man’s Foe.

If you’re within striking distance of London on Saturday June 8th, I will be the BSFA guest of honour at the annual one-day convention jointly run by the BSFA and the SFF, alongside their respective AGMs. More from the BSFA here.

The venue is the Department of Physics, South Kensington Campus, Imperial College, and the programme is as follows:

1000: Intro/welcome
1005-1100: Panel 1 – BSFA
The Zero Sum of Literature: are some SF writers wrong to not welcome “literary” writers with open arms to the genre?
1105-1200: Interview/talk 1 – Rachel Livermore
1200-1230: SFF AGM
1300-1330: BSFA AGM
1330-1430: SFF panel – “Return to the Moon: how and why?” – GS (M), Dave Clements, Rachel Livermore
1430-1530: Interview 2 – Juliet E McKenna interviewed by Sophia McDougall.

The Convention is free to attend and open to the public. Hope to see you there!

And now as promised, here’s another taste of The Green Man’s Foe, using the Book Quote Wednesday word ‘promise’. If this seems a little opaque at the moment, trust me, it’ll all become clear when you read the book.

There was an edge of desperation in Ben’s voice. I have to admit, that did intrigue me.
‘Just come down to take a look at the place,’ he pleaded. ‘We really need to get the project moving, and I honestly can’t think of anyone better than you.’
I wondered how much of that urgency was some instinct stirred by his dryad ancestry. Then there was my dream last night to consider. I had learned the hard way that the Green Man didn’t like being ignored.
‘I’ll talk to Eleanor.’ I raised a warning hand. ‘No promises.’
‘Great.’ Ben’s relief was obvious. He took a pen from an inside pocket and scribbled on the front of the Brightwell folder. ‘That’s my mobile, and my email. Let me know a good time for you to visit. Later this week, if you can?’
I nodded, still non-committal. There were potential complications I needed to discuss with Eleanor that I couldn’t explain to Ben.

What’s in a name? Better ask Google! (plus ‘The Green Man’s Foe’ excerpt)

One thing about writing a book set in the modern world is the challenge of finding character names. The business of naming epic fantasy characters is straightforward by comparison. Make sure they’re easily pronounced, and coherent for the society where they belong, and you’re pretty much good to go.

But when you’re dealing with the current day, the first thing you must do is stick whatever combination of name and surname you’re using into a search engine. Believe me, you will find pages of people called exactly that – and you need to take a look at the results to make sure you’re not inadvertently libelling anyone. This is particularly important when it comes to villains.

The cautionary tale for authors is what happened to Jake Arnott, in his crime novel, Johnny Come Home, published in April 2006, pulped in August 2006. It turned out that unknown to Arnott, there was someone with the same name as his appalling bad guy, working in the same industry, at the time when the novel was set. You can read the details here.

I’ve been thinking about this as I’ve been finishing up The Green Man’s Foe. In particular, I’ve noticed how much things have changed since I wrote the very different novel that’s given me the setting and a few other things that are now the basis for Dan’s new challenge. Those other things include some minor characters. When I first wrote that other novel, I made sure even the most passing named characters had no presence online. Double-checking as we did the edits, I found a whole lot of instances where that’s no longer the case. So many more people are online these days that you can lose hours trying to find a no-results combination.

Well, I’ve changed a few names, and left ones where there really is no chance of a non-villain being mistaken for someone who lives in a different country and works in an entirely different industry. But even so, I will be careful to make sure that the standard disclaimer is in the book’s front matter, making it clear this is a work of fiction and no resemblance to any real people, living or dead, is intended.

Well, apart from one cameo appearance – but that would be telling…

Moving on, this week’s Book Quote Wednesday word is ‘luck’, and Dan’s got a new job, but will this turn out to be a stroke of good fortune? You’ll find out in due course, and meantime, here’s this week’s taster.

We walked along the corridor that ran in a U shape around this floor, with windows overlooking the mossy courtyard at the heart of the house. As Franklin opened successive doors, I saw that all the bedrooms had views looking outwards to the gardens and the woods beyond.

Something occurred to me. ‘This must be a listed building?’

‘Grade two.’ Franklin was unconcerned. ‘We’ve been through everything with the planning people. The Suttons did extensive alterations before there were any regulations to stop them, putting in dressing rooms which will be ideal for bathrooms. They had all the panelling to work with, so you can’t even see the joins. Old Aunt Constance’s father, John, had political ambitions, and plans for hosting house parties with the rich and powerful. Luckily he lost all his money before he could ruin the place.

He continued walking. I followed him around the next corner and came face to face with a display case of stuffed birds, where a mangy ferret glared at me with baleful glass eyes. Those could go straight in the skip.

A May update

A brief post to share a few things. Firstly, I will be a guest of the Super Relaxed Fantasy Club on Tuesday 14th May, alongside Jen Williams and Stewart Hotson. We’ll be meeting upstairs at The Star of Kings (just north of King’s Cross) from 7pm. The event promises ‘a reading, some Q&A, a chat, a lemonade’, and the evening is open to all.

In writing news, The Green Man’s Foe is well on its way to a final text, with thanks to Editor Toby. The cover art is really coming together, thanks to Artist Ben. As soon as we have a definite publication date, and information on how to pre-order from Wizard’s Tower Press , I’ll post all the details.

Meantime, I’ll be posting weekly snippets as part of the Book Quote Wednesday hashtag #bookqw on Twitter and Facebook. It’s a fun bit of promo run by Mindy Klasky and taken up by an eclectic range of authors – if you do Twitter and/or Facebook. Obviously not everyone does, so I’ll cross-post here.

This week’s word is ‘friend’, so here’s a taste, just to whet your appetite…

‘Daniel, good to see you.’

‘Ben.’ I offered him my hand and we shook, by way of a greeting somewhere between friends and business acquaintances. ‘What brings you here?’

Benjamin Beauchene – pronounced ‘Beechen’ – is an architect who lives in London, even if Blithehurst Manor is his ancestral family home, and he has shares in the trust that now preserves the property for future generations. Not that the dryads were convinced that the humans who couldn’t see them could be trusted to look after their domain.

‘I’m looking for a favour,’ he said with a frank grin. ‘Shall we head up to the restaurant for a coffee?’ He gestured towards the repurposed stable buildings that stood at the top of the shallow slope by the main road.

I checked my watch. It wasn’t even nine in the morning. I wondered what this favour might be, to get him here so early.

In other news, we can now share the cover art for the anthology Alternate Peace, and Justin Adams of Varia Studios is the artist. This is coming soon from ZNB, and my story’s set in 1939, twenty-five years after a very different outcome to a tragedy in Sarajevo…

Writing update – no April Fools

First and foremost, today’s big news is The Green Man’s Heir ebook is included in Amazon’s monthly deals for the whole of April. It will be really interesting to see how this goes, a year after first publication. If you know someone who’s been curious about the book, and might just say ‘oh, go on then…’ do let them know.

Here’s the link

In other news, reasons for the lack of blogging so far this year are:
a) domestic distractions (nothing dire, just time- consuming)
b) a lot of very intensive writing.

I’ve been head-down and flat-out writing The Green Man’s Foe for the last few months. That’s going off to my excellent editor Toby Selwyn today. I’m very pleased with it as it stands – and I know Toby’s input will make it even better as he spots things that need snagging and suggests tweaks accordingly. Now I need to brief Ben Baldwin with cover ideas. More news in due course.

I did take a brief break to write a short story for one of this year’s anthologies coming from ZNB. I’m extremely pleased to say it was accepted, and will appear in Alternate Peace, edited by Steven H Silver & Joshua Palmatier and scheduled for release no later than August 2019 (maybe coming June 2019, depending on printer schedules).  You can enjoy fifteen alternate histories where the break from our timeline comes from some kind of peaceful change.

I found that was a very interesting premise, and two books I’ve read some years apart came together in an unexpected way to give me an idea. Those books were a history of the ‘Spanish Flu’ and Bill Bryson’s ‘1927’. Make of that what you will…

In keeping with ZNB’s excellent tradition, the stories will come from a roster of established and new authors. I can’t wait to read them.

“O-Rings” by Elektra Hammond
“A Dad Ought to Have Nightmares” by Dale Cozort
“Election Day” by Harry Turtledove
“A Fine Line, Indeed” by C.W. Briar
“Donny Boy” by Rick Wilber
“The Echoes of a Shot” by Juliet E. McKenna
“What Makes a Better World” by Michael Robertson
“Field of Cloth of Gold and Blood, Sweat and Tears” by Kat Otis
“Politicians, Lost Causers, and Abigail Lockwood” by Kristine Kathryn Rusch
“Or, the Modern Psyche” by Brian Hugenbruch
“Easter Rising” by Stephen Leigh
“The Sisters of the Hallowed Marsh” by Elizabeth Kite
“Selkie” by Ian R. MacLeod
“New Moon, Dark Skies” by Mike Barretta
“His Master’s Voice” by Kari Sperring



It was twenty years ago today – well, this month, anyway…

This January sees the twentieth anniversary of the first publication of The Thief’s Gamble. That’s quite some milestone, especially considering all the epic upheavals and changes that we’ve seen in publishing, book selling, and the SF&Fantasy genre over these past two decades. So I am tremendously grateful to all the enthusiastic fans who’ve enjoyed my books and spread the word that continues to bring new readers to the Tales of Einarinn. I’m also pleased, and proud, that these stories I devised so long ago stand up to readers’ expectations today.

The advent of ebooks, and an online environment that facilitates small presses, plays a huge part in enabling writers like me to keep our early books available. Accordingly, I’m very pleased indeed, that the digital VAT threshold that I helped campaign for, and secure, has come into force this month. This means that small presses can now sell their own ebooks direct to readers, free of DRM and with a choice of formats as they see fit, and without losing significant earnings for themselves and their authors as 3rd party platforms take 20% VAT straight off the retail price, followed by their own cut of over 50% (Google) and 30% (Amazon). When you’re considering a small press purchase, do check to see if it’s possible for you to buy direct. The cost to you will be the same, and the authors and publishers will benefit.

This change in the legislation means Wizard’s Tower Press has been able to re-open its online bookstore, and Cheryl and I have decided to mark this month’s anniversary with a special offer on all five Tales of Einarinn. From now until the end of January, the five novels are on sale. The prices are US$2.99, £2.35 and €2.99. You can also buy a fabulous omnibus edition that contains all five novels and the short story collection, A Few Further Tales of Einarinn. Until the end of January that’s just $9.99/£7.99.

These offers will also be available through Barnes & Noble, Kobo, Google, and Amazon, though apparently Amazon’s website is currently baulking at the omnibus thanks to the adds-on from their own file formatting. Hopefully that can be sorted out, and meantime, if you need a Kindle version you can buy it from the Wizard’s Tower Bookstore. As ever, I am indebted to Cheryl for tackling all these technical issues.

So now’s the ideal time to renew your acquaintance with the world of Einarinn, and to recommend the Tales to new readers. All signal boosting will be very much appreciated, naturally!

Reflections on 2018

This has been The Green Man’s Year for me, and who could have predicted that a year ago? Cheryl of Wizard’s Tower Press and I were aiming to get the book out for Eastercon, with the expert input of Toby for editing, and Ben’s outstanding artwork. If we made oh, say, a few hundred quid over and above our meeting our costs, that would count as a success. Reader, we did that in the first six weeks… As the year draws to a close, we have sold over 8000 copies – and that’s before the current sale.

What has this meant for me, beyond the massive boost to morale after a few years in the publishing doldrums? For a start, I now have the budget for attending Dublin 2019’s WorldCon in the bank, and that eases my mind tremendously. I could also afford to go to Octocon in Ireland last October, and to travel to Baltimore for the World Fantasy Convention. I was able to replace my aging and increasingly flaky computer, and buy a new printer to replace the even older and more temperamental incumbent.

Beyond the practicalities, writing a book that’s reminded the publishing industry that yes, I can spin a yarn that a whole load of people love to read, has significantly improved my chances of placing a new fantasy novel/series. So that’s what I’m working on, alongside plans for a Green Man sequel from Wizard’s Tower Press. I’ve also enjoyed myself writing an alternate history short story for ZNB’s 2019 slate of anthologies.

Though those people who’ve said to me, with all goodwill, that the bigger publishers must be kicking themselves for not picking up Green Man, are somewhat behind the times, as far as the book trade goes. Something that this experience, and the year more generally, has shown me, is how massively the book business has changed in the twenty years since The Thief’s Gamble was first published in January 1999. Those who did turn The Green Man’s Heir down for the mass market did so after honestly assessing the commercial chances of this very different style of book from an author best known for epic fantasy, and concluding that the odds were against it. Who’s to say they were wrong, as far as that particular bookshop/supermarket sales environment goes? Not me. But these days, the mass market is by no means the only game in town and that really is the game-changer. We’re seeing time and again that small press and ebook-led titles can succeed online in a wholly new way. For writers, this underscores how vital a hybrid career is becoming; combining independent projects with mass market writing.

Serving as a judge for the 2018 World Fantasy Awards showed me still more aspects of the changing nature of publishing and the SFFH genre. Online publishing and publicity, as well as fans’ ever-evolving digital reading habits, have given shorter form fiction like novellas and short stories a massive boost. We saw a wealth of excellent submissions, both individually and in collections and anthologies. We also saw novels from small, independent presses as good as anything from the mass market publishers. A significant element across all the submissions, regardless of length or publisher, was the presence of voices hitherto minimised or excluded in the last decade or so of mass market, hard copy publishing where the blunt instrument of commercial pressures skewed everything towards what was perceived as the centre of the readership bell curve.

As a judge, I saw these new voices, from indigenous writers, from writers of colour and various diaspora populations, from authors across the LGBTQ+ spectrum, and others besides, bring fresh perspectives and unexpected twists to classic SFFH themes and ideas, enriching and broadening the genre. This has definitely also invigorated white, western writers, encouraging them to explore new ideas and influences – as well as challenging them to up their game, because these more recent entrants really can write. If you think anyone got on this year’s WFA shortlists as any kind of token, or by being held to some lesser standard on account of some undeserved credit, think again. As judges we were unanimous on that score.

This trend towards an inclusive, expansive and diverse genre was a feature of all the conventions I went to this year, both in terms of programming, and in the informal conversations around the bars and restaurants, alongside discussions of the shifts in publishing and new opportunities arising from such changes. This really is an interesting and exciting time to be writing, though equally, it’s no time to be complacent. Decades of cultural inertia still take a lot of shifting. Thankfully, readers and fans are increasingly aware of that as well. My essay on challenges and barriers to broader participation on SFFH writing was shortlisted for a 2018 BSFA Award, which I find very encouraging, as well as a tremendous honour.

I could go on, but it’s Christmas Eve, and I have things to do. So now that I’ve looked back on this rewarding year, I’ll wish you and yours a happy holiday season, however you choose to celebrate at this time of year. I’m signing off social media pretty much till the New Year, so see you in 2019!

The Green Man’s Heir – seasonal sale, and audiobook news!

As the year turns, Cheryl and I have decided to offer The Green Man’s Heir for sale at £0.99, US$0.99 and €0.99 until 31st December, and this is not just limited to Kindle UK like the summer offer, but via Kobo, Google, B&N and Amazon US as well. So if you’ve been thinking about reading it – or recommending it – now’s an excellent time.

There’s a full roster of purchase links here or head for your preferred ebook retailer.

In other exciting news, there will be an audiobook version available from 24th January 2019. To preorder from Amazon UK click here.

I’m really thrilled about this as it’ll be my first ever audiobook! Yes, really. Twenty years ago, when I started out and audiobooks were still tied to physical media like cassettes and later CDs, the sales thresholds for a title to qualify were sky-high. Now that we have digital downloads however, it’s a whole different ball game.

Advising on what I was looking for in a narrator’s voice was a completely new challenge for me, as was listening to sample readings and seeing which voice and narrative style was the best fit. I don’t listen to audiobooks myself, so I enlisted my partially-sighted Dad (for whom audiobooks are invaluable) and my musician son, who deals with all sorts of audio material and listens to things in a very different way to me, if that makes any sense at all.

It’s going to be fascinating to see what audiobook fans make of it.