Major Reviewers, Third Party Sites, and the Continuing Prejudice Against E-Publishing

Not too long ago, my trusty Google alerts informed me that a blogger had mentioned my name in a post.  That had happened before--an old nemesis from my past had bemoaned the fact that mean people like me could get published while nice people like her couldn't.  Needless to say, I was steeling myself as the site came up.

What I found was totally unexpected.  The An American Editor blog had mentioned me very kindly as a good new author he'd found on Fictionwise.  I was pretty chuffed by the mention--after all, it's not very often you get an unexpected mention like that.  So a few weeks later, I was completely floored when the same blogger posted "LE Modesitt Jr and Celina Summers: Fantasy in Contrast."  In this post, American Editor compared my Asphodel Cycle  to Modesitt's Saga of Recluse series, giving Asphodel a great review in the process. 

At the time, I considered sending him a box of chocolates. After all, writers published through small presses rarely get unlooked for reviews and especially not from a professional in the business. So I sent the review to my editors and did a little happy dance and that small promotional part of me wondered, "Gee, can I use this review? It would be really cool if that review showed up at Ficitonwise or Amazon--maybe it would help sales..."

And, lo and behold, while I was dithering the review did show up at Fictionwise, posted by An American Editor.  Quite interestingly after that, I got a spike in sales for The Asphodel Cycle at Fictionwise which I assumed (and still do) was a direct result of that review.

So yesterday, my Google alerts rang up again, and once again An American Editor mentioned my name. The blog post was entitled Finding the Needle in a Haystack of Needles: Reader Reviews.  Throughout the post, the editor examined the difficulties of finding a good ebook to purchase and explored one of the reasons why--the lack of credible reviews for e-published works. I really recommend that you read the post. Aside from being fascinating, it's also very direct. 

One of the biggest problems I have as an ebook reader and buyer is finding that proverbial needle in a haystack of needles, that is, the ebook worth buying and reading that is written by an independent author. The ease of publishing an ebook has created a flood of ebooks to choose among, and making that choice is increasingly difficult.

That one paragraph encapsulates the major problem facing e-book authors today.  How do we find a readership?  In some category genres, like erotica or romantica, the key is prolific releases.  The erotic aauthor who releases a book every month or so, who begins with outstanding reviews from big romance sites, is going to build and maintain a readership.  These books are usually novellas, usually serial, and usually keep the writer in a specific niche.  I edit several authors who are able to accomplish this and my hat is off to them.

Although romance is a strong thread in my work, however, I am primarily a speculative fiction writer.  Asphodel, Covenants, and  Mythos  are all fantasy series and while Mythos  is being released as serial novellas, the subject matter (Greco-Roman mythology) lends itself to that format.  My other books are novels and big, fat novels at that. It's difficult, if not impossible in my opinion, to build a strong, cohesive readership in purely speculative fiction e-books.  My books get reviewed, yes--and usually get strong reviews--Novelspot, Love Romances and More, Coffee Time Romance, Night Owl, Two Lips Reviews and scads more have given my books four and five stars repeatedly. 

I'm not saying this to brag--I'm telling you this as an illustration.  The normal review sites for my genre do not review e-books. 

When The Reckoning of Asphodel  was reviewed by In the Library, I had to print out the book--five hundred plus pages of paper--and ship it to the reviewer.  (That's why they never reviewed past the first book; it was too darn expensive) So the reviews I get are read by people who primarily prefer another genre entirely--romance.  Not fantasy readers; romance readers.While there's enough romance in my stories to satisfy a fan of romance, it's secondary to the primary plot. And that, I think, is the huge problem for fantasy and sci fi authors published through electronic means.

We don't have many avenues to receive reviews that are credible to our target audience.
 
Reader reviews on third party sites are either just starred reviews--where you click on a star level from one to five to indicate your enjoyment of the book--or generally stilted one line comments.  Occasionally, you get a good review from a reader, but that doesn't help you to combat the hordes of re-releases choking the top of the best seller lists on Amazon or Fictionwise. I don't delude myself into thinking I can compete with Mercedes Lackey's entire backlist when it comes to sales for people's Kindle or I-pads. This is new in e-publishing.  Remember: The Reckoning of Asphodel was nbumber one on Fictionwise in fantasy for two weeks after its release--knocking off Neil Gaiman's Stardust the same week the movie came out.  The major publishers were still trying to ignore e-publishers at that point. 
 
Subsequent Asphodel novels hit the bestseller list--The Gift of Redemption hit the top twenty; Temptation of Asphodel the top twenty-five and Apostle of Asphodel only the top fifty.  I think the decrease is pretty representative of how the public view of e-published books changed over the course of those three years. 
 
So how do we combat that?  How can e-published spec fic authors break through the veil of condescenscion that masks us from our target audience, the disdain of major review sites, the immense backlog of reissues at third party distributors, the obscurity our lack of name recognition consigns us to?  Well, notices like the one An American Editor gave me certainly do help.  After his review appeared, the Asphodel books gained new readers--readers I was able to track as they progressed their way through the series.  As a matter of fact, The Reckoning of Asphodel  reappeared in the Fictionwise top 100 bestseller list in Fantasy for a time, followed by its sequels in approximately 3 week intervals.  So the word can get out there and it does have an effect.  An American Editor makes a few suggestions on their blog, geared toward reader reviews and how the third part distributors can change the way those reviews are given--offering rewards for more extensive responses to pre-prepared questionnaires about the book. 
 
I have a different idea.
 
Let's take all those reissues OFF the regular genre pages.  Let new literature live or die against recent releases, not against JRR Tolkien's legacy released all at once in a new format.  Give us six months to maneuver among other books of the same age, giving us true bestseller status and visibility.  How hard would that be?  I wouldn't think it was that difficult at all. That way, new authors can get noticed and readers searching for new voices don't have to click past fifty pages of fifty years of genre writing.  That's one way.
 
Another way, perhaps, would be easier if the major reviewers would implement e-publishing regulations.  When will the NYT review an e-wpublished book?  Heck, for that matter when will they review a book released by a small independent publisher?  How about Romantic Times? The big sci fi and fantasy reviewers?  There is a LOT of great literature out there, released by e-publishers who are willing to take a chance on literature that the major houses passed by.  Why ignore it?
 
When I was at the RT convention, I asked the agents' panel if e-published books were now considered a legitimate publishing credit.  To a person, they admitted that whereas three years ago e-books weren't, now they can be, depending upon the house that published them.  E-publishers like Ellora's Cave and Samhain (and now Aspen Mountain Press, whose reputation for good editing and strong stories) are moving beyond the one-time prejudice against electronic publishing.  That's good news.
 
That good news needs to seep into the minds of review sites, of NY publishing houses and the third party distributors who abandoned their early commitment to e-publishing in favor of mass reissues of authors' whole backlists from scanned versions of older editions.  At Aurora, I'm working with an author who is reissuing her backlist with us--one book at a time, each book re-edited and re-formatted to meet e-publishing standards and each book treated as a new release by the company.  She is a pleasure and a joy to work with, because she's committed to the idea of e-publishing as the format of the future and is bringing new manuscripts to the table in addition to her backlist. There is a difference between what she is doing and what the NY publishers, with the collusion of major third party ditributors, are doing to the e-publishing industry.  She's integrating into it; they are taking advantage of it.
 
But more importantly, what An American Editor is doing is a huge first step.  By their continued championship of e-published books and their quest to legitimize the jewels a reader can find hidden in the overwhelming mess of third party distributorship, they are calling attention to a new and growing problem e-published authors are facing.  And for that, I have to thank them.
 
And for the review too.  Heck, I'm not stupid.

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