By Max Everhart
The murder rate in El Salvador in 2009 was 71 per 100,000 people, according to the United Nations. Which means an El Salvadorian citizen had, at the time, a one in ten chance of being murdered. Then, in 2010, something extraordinary occurred in that country which had the dubious distinction of being the most violent nation on Earth: the murder rate fell by nearly two-thirds. How did that happen, and so quickly? In a word: collusion. The two main gangs—Barrio 18 and Mara Salvatrucha—called a truce and agreed to stop killing each other and divide up the country into territories. They opted to collude rather than to compete, and the results, for both the gangs and the general population, were extremely positive.
I learned about this in Narconomics, an excellent non-fiction book by Tom Wainwright. The book is about drug cartels and how they run their businesses similarly to that of big corporations like Walmart, and after I read about the El Salvadorian gang truce, I immediately thought about writers, and the plights of published scribes–like me–desperate for their work to receive some attention. Indulge me a moment, and I’ll connect the dots.
Millions and millions of novels are listed on Amazon, some released by the Big Five, some by small presses, and some self-published. Now in a marketplace that saturated with books, it is daunting for a writer to compete for even a tiny slice of the market. However, as overwhelming as the odds are, I do believe it is possible for any writer to a be a success, as long as he or she is willing to redefine what success means. Having given the matter considerable thought, I’ve come to my own definition of what a successful writer is, and it is two-fold. The first part, obviously, has to do with the work itself. For me, as long as I’m writing what I want, when I want, and how I want, I’m satisfied (or as satisfied as a misanthrope can be). The second part has to do with marketing/promotion, which, in my case, causes way more headaches than the actual writing. To help clarify my thinking on the subject (and expand on the scope of my aforementioned definition of success), I’ve adopted three basic rules regarding marketing/promotions.
Rule one: if I read and enjoy a book, I write a review on Amazon for it. And, whenever possible, I encourage other readers to do likewise. On the other hand, if I read a book and don’t like it, I don’t write a review at all. Granted, negative reviews that point out flaws are important to both writers and readers alike, but I just don’t have time to type those up. That said, I sincerely appreciate those intelligent and, for the most part, unpaid reviewers who write well-written critical reviews. I say, keep ‘em coming. Those amateur critics provide a much-needed service, and even if they post an unfavorable review of my work, I’m more than okay with it. Sincerely. In fact, I urge them to continue their good work, which leads directly to. . .
Rule two: I no longer write favorable reviews of books I don’t care for. A few years ago, when I first started publishing novels, I did a fair bit of this, and I shouldn’t have. On occasion, I got asked by authors (and sometimes publishers) to blurb/review books, and there were several that I didn’t think much of, but I wrote positively about them anyway. Why? A variety of reasons, most of them, in retrospect, selfish. Chief among those reasons, though, was I, a newcomer, didn’t want to come off as a jerk. After all, I wasn’t and am not John Updike, a critic’s darling. I’m no Stephen King, worldwide bestseller. In other words, I didn’t feel like I had earned the right to negatively critique a writer’s work. That, I now realize, was wrong–in so many ways. I actually contributed to the problem of market saturation by continuing to write good reviews for books that were, to me, bad. (Note: I’m not talking about solid novels that just weren’t my cup of tea; I can appreciate the merits of a George Martin sci-fi book, for example, even though I don’t enjoy reading one. No, I’m referring to poorly-written, poorly-executed novels that were sent my way.) I pride myself on being honest, and after I became a published author myself, I was so desperate for my own success that I thought I should be positive about every book that came my way. Another huge mistake. I allowed my craving for book sales to drive my every decision, not considering the consequences of assigning a lot of undeserving books five out of five stars.
In broader terms, what I’m attempting to say is this: by colluding with my fellow authors and, in some cases, publishers, I helped dilute the pool of good writing out there. Many well-intentioned people, particularly authors, are guilty of this, and it is high time we stopped. I know I have.
Rule three: I subscribe to the 80/20 rule of promotions on social media, meaning 80% of your posts should be about other people’s work you admire, and only 20% should be self-promotion. This isn’t a problem for me (now) as I’ve resigned myself to a harsh truth: the books I’ve written will not sell, despite my best efforts. I’ve accepted this, and I’m happier for it. So instead of worrying about missed opportunities or wasted time, I’m focused on writing new books, which, hopefully, will find new homes and, eventually, possibly, lead readers back to the four I’ve already penned. But full disclosure, I do very little social media promotions these days; when I do, I try to stick to the 80/20 rule. When I first started out, a majority of my posts were about my work. I was totally gun-ho, expecting to generate sales, sales, sales. Very naive, very selfish. Memory serves, I rarely promoted anyone’s books except mine. Another grievous error on my part, one I’ve recently remedied.
Bottom line, authors and readers should support one another. . .up to a point. Writers and reviewers should, above all else, be forthright. Supporting writers is vastly different than colluding with them. Besides, collusion, at least in my personal experience, hasn’t worked. Take my first novel Go Go Gato, for example. It has 30 favorable reviews on Amazon as of this posting. Now, an overwhelming majority of those reviews were written by people I know or work with, and those kind folks were predisposed to liking a book I wrote. I’m not saying they were lying; I’m guessing most of them probably did enjoy my novel (it is an entertaining mystery). But most of them also wrote those reviews at my request. And, as much as I appreciate those reviews, they still didn’t lead to increased sales. Translation: collusion, in this instance, didn’t work. Ditto the money I spent on a blog tour and FB and Goodreads ads, but that’s a subject for another time.
A question regarding review solicitation: is it okay to ask, not pester, readers for reviews? Of course, it is. What’s not okay is cold-calling/bulk-emailing/FB-messaging authors you don’t know and haven’t even read and asking them for reviews and/or social media mentions. That happens. A lot. Even I, an obscure mystery novelist, has been asked by unknown writers to do things like that, and I’ve done it. And I always felt sleazy afterward. It’s only one mention, some might say. What’s the big deal? It’s a big deal to me. I expect people to be honest with me about my work–the good and the bad–and I should have returned the favor, or said nothing at all. Yes, I realize I sound like a moralist with an inflated sense of self-righteousness. Come to think of it, I probably am a moralist with an inflated sense of self-righteousness. Still, it doesn’t mean I’m wrong.
In summation, I want to make some money writing. My pipe dream is to earn a living off of my books, but I also know that is a long shot. So, as of this posting, I’m re-calibrating my definition of success. I’m reevaluating my marketing practices because I want peace of mind more than I want to chase a brass ring. I don’t like jewelry on men, anyway–metaphorical or otherwise. Men should wear wedding rings and/or watches, and that’s it.
Back to those El Salvadorian gangs. While collusion between Barrio 18 and Mara Salvatrucha saved untold lives and was a boon for that country, I think collusion between writers is having an adverse affect on the publishing industry. Like my FB page, and I’ll like yours back. Follow me on twitter, and I’ll follow you back. Let’s trade rave reviews. I ask, what is the cost of these shady (silly?) practices? I’m a reader first and foremost, so whenever I go on Amazon and see a book has 79 reviews, I want to trust that those reviews are on the level. I want to know the positives and negatives of a particular book, and then make my choice. I want to read the honest and heartfelt thoughts of others, filter them through my own brain, and then make my choice. Is that a lot to ask? I don’t think so. More important than my book selection, I want my integrity back. No, I didn’t sell my soul to try and move some units, but I did compromise my. . .well, I compromised something, and I don’t like it. Hence, my rules.
What are your thoughts on the subject(s)? Do you think reviews are being inflated? Do you feel there is too much collusion between writers? Leave me a comment.