“Publishers Weekly Shanks One”

If you’re coming in over the transom, I know you won’t know what the hell that means.

So, here ’tis: a month ago, I found out my novel, “Between Clubs,” was selected as a semi-finalist in the Amazon Breakthrough Novel contest. The contest is a way to pick the “best” novel from a bunch of unpublished ones.

The semi-finalists get a three-part reviewing process: customer reviews, an Amazon.com Top Reviewer, and a Publishers Weekly review. The top 100 from the semi-finalists move on … then the top 10, 3, and then they pick a winner.

The PW review of my book is a hatchet job. But it’s also riddled with errors, the kind that you’d only make if you’d skipped about 3/4 of the book. So I finally decided to write a counter-review and post it on my amazon page. The title of the blog post is the title of my review.

shank.jpgIf you’re still not getting it, my book is a golf novel, and a shank (see the pic) is the Lord Voldemort of golf shots, so bad some won’t even utter the word by name.

If you feel so inclined, go give the review and counter-review a read, and let me know what you think.

Meantime, I’ll be humming a few lines from a Billy Bragg song:

I said there is no justice
As they led me out the door
The judge said, “This isn’t a court of justice, son
This is a court of law.”

Mob Rules

angry_mob.png

My friend Cliff (not pictured) and I have been having a conversation about whether the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award (ABNA) will actually find a “breakthrough” novel.

Here’s his opinion, which was so pullquote-worthy, I’m lifting it out of the comments section of another blog post:

You simply cannot go through 5,000 submissions in two months, letting amateur reviewers cherrypick their favorite genres and disqualify everyone else. The average Amazon reviewers has neither the skill, intelligence, education or any tangible qualification to be entrusted with the task. The contest’s (not AWARD) a joke…

As you can see, Cliff lacks neither the ability to form an opinion, nor pithily articulate it.

I’m a little wafflier about the process. (Wafflier isn’t a word? It should be.) For example, the Publishers Weekly review on my amazon page is riddled with errors, ones someone would only make if you didn’t read carefully — or more likely, didn’t read at all.

For example, if you hadn’t read my book, it would be easy to argue, “Otis’s unhappiness is undeniable, but it is also ambiguously rendered; he makes random comments like “I’m becoming one of you,” but these thoughts don’t lead to anything.” A particularly odd observation, because Otis’ “becoming” is his central inner conflict in the book!

Even though the PW review is the dog’s breakfast, some of the user comments are really astute. For example, one reviewer noted that chapter two,

sounds a slightly flat note in that it presents a confliciting image of Roberto. Where on the golf course his putting troubles have led him to take extreme chances, in the casino he’s the cool mathematician always in control. I don’t understand the logic of this turnaround …

What a difference actually doing the reading makes, eh? 

New Yorker writer James Surowiecki (I’m predisposed to like any writer with a hard-to-spell last name) has a book called The Wisdom of Crowds, in which he summarizes a number of group dynamics studies and notes, “The simplest way to get reliably good answers is just to ask the group each time.” (Here’s an excerpt.)

The ABNA contest is allegedly judged on the basis of the PW review, and Amazon Top Reviewer review, and user reviews. So in theory, the wisdom of the crowd would mitigate one unfounded review (good or bad), and an aggregate of reviews would better reflect a work’s actual value.

Of course this doesn’t entirely apply to the Amazon contest. First, people who aren’t interested in reviewing are probably not going to write a review anyway, so the ratings will probably skew higher than if a true cross-section of people reviewed something. (Then again, Amazon probably knows this.)

Second, there’s the friends-and-family phenomenon … i.e., mom’s not going to trash my book. In a best-case scenario, amazon (or whomever) would be able to tease out the obliged reviewers from the ones doing the writer a favor. One way would be to see how many other ABNA excerpts they reviewed.

Third, without a critical mass of reviews, one or two odd ones are far more likely to skew the process.

Fourth, Amazon hasn’t been totally transparent about its judging process, so it’s impossible to know what counts and what doesn’t.

I’m just hoping that more people will review my work fairly, and I have a critical mass. After getting rooked by PW, that’s about all I can ask.

Funniest Book Review So Far

In just two weeks I’ve had a bunch of reactions to my book, Between Clubs, on amazon.com. Those reactions included the Publishers Weekly review, which messed up the basics in its rush to start swinging the hatchet.

Then a friend sent me this, which he hasn’t been able to post on Amazon because he doesn’t have a US or Canadian credit card. Here it is:

Golf Swings

Speaking as a washed up barroom musician, I waste an awful lot of time.

John Ochwat’s novel about aspiring golf pros reminded me of what happens when you take what you do for pure joy and start to do it with money in mind:

Mike O’Hearn and Casey Blanton trying to out strut each other, Roberto Picarro in the unenviable position being the weakest player in the band and probably going to be dumped; the highly recognizable Paul Sloan, proof of the old adage that a player who becomes a band leader will turn into a prick; the calculating Stony who reminded me of one of those scum balls from the musician’s union; and the row caused by who bunks with Striver. Trying to maintain some equilibrium is the somewhat jaded Otis, whose mentality is obviously that of the rhythm section, the essential ingredient in any band.

Throw in some racial and cross border frisson – man!

I look forward to reading this novel while I scratch my ass between engagements.

Mr. Ochwat, he rocks.

A One-Liner Bites Me in the Ass

Last week I wrote that “the Penguin Blog is actually a Penguin Press Release Archive. That’s not social media, that’s PR!”

Mighta shoulda checked more carefully, I.

I got a response via e-mail from Penguin Books:

We read your January 20th post “Semi-Semi Finals” and wanted to address your observation about the Penguin USA blog: We do post Penguin news once a week, but the bulk of the blogging is done by our weekly guest authors

Our main purpose is to give readers an opportunity to hear directly from our authors and editors. Ideally, as has occurred in the past, readers post comments that lead to conversations with the authors and other bloggers.

Thanks to your post, we are checking out the discrepancy between the Amazon and Penguin pages. In the future, we encourage you to post these observations directly on the Penguin blog: http://us.penguingroup.com/static/html/blogs/

Remember me, nattering on and on about jumping to the wrong conclusions if you skim? Ahem. Case in point.

Crawlin’ from the Wreckage

great_car_wreck_5163.jpgSocial media and book publishing are starting to collide. Here’s the back-story: As you may know, my first novel, Between Clubs, made it to the semi-finals of the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award. (muted hooray)

That means anyone can download a free 5,000-word excerpt and write a review. To judge who goes to the next round, Penguin Books is rating all 836 books on the basis of customer reviews and reviews by an Amazon Top Reviewer, and Publishers Weekly. (As Slate pointed out, the Amazon reviews have always been a murky, politicized issue.)

This week, Publishers Weekly trashed Between Clubs, probably killing its hopes of reaching the next round. (muted groans)

That hurt, though not because I naively thought everyone would love the book. I knew I’d get dinged, sooner or later (though I had a nice honeymoon, when all the customers who’ve written reviews gave me 5 stars).

It hurt because the PW reviewer got so many obvious things wrong about the review, that I know he or she skipped entire sections of the book. I also felt that the reviewer based some of the negative things s/he said on the basis of not reading. Nor am I the only one who feels wronged. There’s even a discussion thread going on Amazon, Factual Errors in PW Reviews – Do we try to get them fixed?

One writer said of the Publishers Weekly reviews that “quite a few read like 8th grade book reports, (read the first and last chapter then write it up.)”

My first instinct was to fight back, citing chapter and verse to prove that the reviewer didn’t read the book. I even wrote an angry blog post, then deleted it. (Though I did callowly leave it up as an anonymous rant on Craigslist, which was quite therapeutic.)

The writer Patricia Cornwell is fighting back against nasty Amazon reviews, but with limited success and support. According to Tess Gerritsen,

The general reaction in the blogosphere is that Cornwell is rich and famous so why does she bother to fight back? People in her position should be immune to hurt feelings. People with money and success should be able to shrug off any and all criticism.

I think that’s a sort of straw-man argument, much like the charges leveled against Stephen Fry when he complained about how taking photos was ruining book reading (here’s my blog post about that).

Writers like Cornwell get upset and fight back because they’re sensitive and vulnerable to criticism. Tess Gerritsen is, Patricia Cornwell is, I am, and so is everyone who took umbrage at a bad Publishers Weekly review.

What I find interesting about this process is that social media allows people to write whatever they want about a book — and allows the writer to respond.

I’m just not sure whether a writer should. In the Amazon contest FAQ, one of the questions is

Can I vote for my own entry?
Of course! Stay tuned – if you are selected as a semi-finalist in January, we will be providing tips for promoting your book to customers in the coming months.

I’m tempted to review my own book, both as an exercise and to correct the record, but there seems to be an invisible part of the social contract that says not to do it. Part of the reason is that once the work of art is out there, it’s on its own … and if people interpret it one way or another (even if they misunderstand), well, that’s something you can’t control. But maybe I’m wrong, and Cornwell’s right.

What do you think?

PS – The title of this post comes from Dave Edmund’s brilliant song of the same name. This week, the chorus fits:

Crawling from the wreckage,
Crawling from the wreckage.
Bits of me are scattered in the trees and in the hedges

Postscript (June 2008): Just in case you’re curious, I finally did write my own counter-review. I doubt it made any difference, but it did make me feel better.

The Semi-Semi-Finals

genlit.jpgI’ve spent the weekend spamming my friends and relatives, telling them that my novel, Between Clubs, is a semi-finalist in the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award. (Like the lovely cover?)

In my original post about it, I missed one fact. According to the Penguin Blog (Penguin Books … not flightless birds), the current batch of 836 semi-finalists

will be narrowed down to 100 semi-finalists on February 19th , and Penguin editors will then select the top 10 contestants who will enter the final round, their decisions informed by the ratings and reviews conducted by Publishers Weekly and Amazon.com critics.

Two observations: First, the Penguin Blog is actually a Penguin Press Release Archive. That’s not social media, that’s PR! But hey, any promo is good promo.

Second, the Amazon contest home page makes no mention of the Feb 19th date:

From now until March 2, we’re inviting Amazon.com customers to download, read, and review excerpts from our semifinalists and help decide who will make it to the Top Ten. Penguin will select manuscripts to read from the semifinal round based on customers’ feedback and Publishers Weekly reviews.

But it sounds like if you’re going to write a review (maybe … for Between Clubs?), it would be most effective if you did it before Feb. 19th.

The Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award

Though I haven’t mentioned this previously on my blog, it’s time to let the proverbial cat out of the bag. I’ve written a novel and I’m shopping it around with agents. I also entered it in the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Contest. The contest took nearly 5,000 novels in the first round, and from that initial pool, cut the field to 836 semifinalists. Last night I got the good news that my novel, Between Clubs, is a semi-finalist!

Pretty exciting, eh? Book authors spend countless hours alone in a room, slaving away over their work. (The novelist Jerzy Kosiński used to call telephone operators and solicit the reactions to passages from his book.) Thus and so, getting recognized once in a while is a nice thing.

From now until March 2, Amazon.com customers can download, read, and review novel excerpts to help decide who will make it to the finals (a.k.a. the Top Ten). Here’s the link to the excerpt of Between Clubs.

Penguin—the publisher sponsoring the contest—will select manuscripts from the semifinal round based on customers’ feedback and Publishers Weekly reviews. The 10 finalists selected from the semifinals will be announced on March 3. Customers will then vote to select the winner, to be announced April 7, 2008.

If you’re so inclined, please read my excerpt and write a review! Not only does it help me (hint hint), but Amazon’s giving away prizes to top reviewers (see the contest page for more info, and tips on writing a good review.)