“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 The contest is a way to pick the “best” novel from a bunch of unpublished ones.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

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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.

The Reviewing Demimonde

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Slate Magazine has a really interesting article about Amazon.com’s Top Reviewers, written by a novelist who became suspicious of his own 5-star review.

Turns out his Amazon Top Reviewer has reviewed over 3,500 books, CDs, and movies for Amazon. “In turn, he has attained a kind of celebrity: a No. 7 ranking; a prominent profile on the Web site; and, apparently, a following.” But the reviewer also has detractors, who accuse him of back-scratching, being unduly influenced by publishers, and of not reading the books under review.

The novelist calculated that Harriet Klausner, Amazon.com’s number-one reviewer since the inception of the ranking system in 2000, “has averaged 45 book reviews per week over the last five years—a pace that seems hard to credit, even from a professed speed-reader.”

He also notes that “John ‘Gunny’ Matlock, ranked No. 6 this spring, took a holiday from Amazon, according to Vick Mickunas of the Dayton Daily News, after allegations that 27 different writers had helped generate his reviews.”

I’m interested because my manusript was reviewed, and because I found a blog post from another Amazon reviewer who was picked to judge the early rounds of the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Contest:

Basically Amazon threw the contest open to the first 5000 excerpted-novel entries. Then, I believe Amazon must have asked every single reviewer if he or she would like to read entries and vote — bearing in mind that a lot of people would turn down this unpaid duty.

Despite this reviewer noting that he’s “not even in the bottom tier of reviewers who get such a designation printed under their reviewer names,” he is actually involved in reading and reviewing books more than just casually.

My Amazon Top Reviewer said in part, “This is okay. It might be better than okay if I cared about golf (or to a lesser degree gambling).” Thanks for the fly-by. Sorry you’re so busy.

I imagine the same thing happening at Publishers Weekly, where they have to weigh in on 836 manuscripts before making the cut to the final 100. There can’t be 836 people that PW has at its disposal, which means reviewers have multiple manuscripts.

Not only that, only about a week passed between the first cut (from about 5,000 manuscripts to 836) and the time the Publishers Weekly reviews posted. Thus, in all likelihood, the poor PW reviewers had only a week to review multiple manuscripts and write reviews. That would be too much for even the near-mythic pace of Harriet Klausner (a review every 8 days).

And so a lot of us who are semi-finalists in the contest got hastily written reviews based on skimming the book instead of reading it.

The reviewer whose blog post I quoted above thought the contest was a great idea, and hoped Amazon would do it again. After suffering with a factually incorrect review at the top of my page, one that’s largely going to determine the fate of my manuscript in the contest, I’m not sure I agree.

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.)