Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Discouragement Brain--Cheating Authors Prosper on Amazon and This Is How

I have this thing called discouragement brain. 

Musicians, actors, artists, writers, dancers--we're all hypercritical of ourselves. We have to be. Art is a process, not a blast from some supernatural agency waving inspiration over our heads and daring us to catch it. We all edit. And while I edit words, musicians edit notes; dancers, nuance; actors, delivery;  and artists, technique. We have to. In order to create that perfect expression, we must refine until it feels as natural as breathing. 

Discouragement brain happens to everyone in the arts. 

This week has been tough. I've been writing a lot this year. A lot. My current yearly first draft word count exceeded 700,000 words last week. You're reading that correctly. Six full-length novels since January 1. I spend a portion of every day writing, a portion editing, and a portion doing all that other stuff authors have to do. I usually work around sixteen hours a day, seven days a week. Beginning Labor Day weekend, I *might* take Saturdays off--I don't give up college football for anybody. I also edit for a few clients--very picky about who I accept, honestly--and now I'm blogging and writing a sports column too. All that falls into the "other stuff" category.

But I am also self-publishing eight books in eight months, and that's feeding my discouragement brain.

All of this work takes a toll on a writer. Self-publishing is hard and expensive if you're going to do it right, and while it would have been easy to slap a cover on an old manuscript and put it out there that was never an option for me. If I'm going to do something, I'm going to do it right. Each book costs me hundreds of dollars to publish, but at least I know it's a product I can be proud of. 

 And yet--

Doing any part of all this requires confidence, and when discouragement brain rears its ugly head it's hard to justify moving forward. And this week has been that way for me. This week I find myself questioning my own career path. 

Let me explain.

With writing and publishing there is a right way and a wrong way to go about doing things. Right now, there's a growing percentage of self-published authors who are most assuredly making things difficult for everyone else. Aside from the content farmers and the spammers, there's a cross-section of self-published authors who have figured out how to beat the system. High Amazon rankings translate to bigger sales--and a self-published author who does well in sales may be approached by Amazon's publishing wing. The authors who manage that get preferential product placement, advertising, and direct marketing from Amazon--along with editing, standard promotions, professional cover art, etc etc etc. 

Any author wants that. But there's a quirk in the system. You see, on Amazon you don't have to actually buy a product in order to rate and review it. So authors have their friends go in and write tons of positive reviews with five star ratings. The book creeps up the rankings, which in the Amazon sales algorithm (based on the star ratings of the product) gives the book better product placement. 

Which leads to more sales. 

Which leads to more reviews and ratings.

Which leads to more sales. 

It's fascinating, in a sick sort of way, to find a self-published "Amazon bestseller" where all the reviews WITHOUT a verified purchase are glowing, and all the reviews WITH a verified purchase are critical. Even more interesting to me is the fact that after a critical review from a verified purchaser, there's a flurry of glowing reviews from unverified ones. 

Have to counteract that two-star with enough five-stars to keep that book's overall rating up, after all. 

And while the authors who cheat are rewarded, the authors who are doing everything the right way are penalized by a sales algorithm that was created for one purpose. Not to put great books in the hands of readers, but to increase sales for Amazon. They don't give two shakes of a pig's tail if the reviews are given by people who--you know, actually READ the book. All they care about is the obvious--books with high ratings and tons of reviews are easier to sell to more people who see all those huge ratings and erroneously assume the book is GOOD. 

In the meantime, authors who did things the right way, who paid for editing, cover art, formatting, interior design, copyediting, etc. stagger along in the cheaters' wake and wonder what they're doing wrong. 

You know--my writing isn't for everyone. I write genre, I write lots of gory battles, I don't write explicit sex scenes. And I don't self-publish all my work either. My new work goes to my literary agent, who submits them to publishers that are closed to unrepresented authors. I have a backlist of books that were small-press published, and that's what I self-publish. 

But I don't cheat. I don't ask all my friends and social media followers to run off to Amazon and rate/review my book. I don't manipulate the system. 

Hence, discouragement brain. 

Maybe I've been going about this the wrong way. Maybe I should manipulate the system too! Maybe I should get all my friends and acquaintances to run right over to Amazon and rate and review my books. You don't have to buy or read them. Who cares about reading them anyway? Just review them. And then maybe, just maybe, people who actually would enjoy reading my work will actually see my books and maybe, just maybe, they'll buy them.

Sure. Sounds kind of shabby when you put it that way, doesn't it? 

Food for thought. Unfortunately, discouragement brain binge-eats food for thought, and lately even looking at this situation has made my discouragement brain into a glutton.