On Diversity in Writing

Over the last week or so in Booklandia, one hasn’t been able to escape the controversy over Nicholas Sparks. This particular controversy – unlike the one almost exclusively within Booklandia where if you’ve read one Sparks novel, you’ve read them all – revolves around a school he created over a decade ago and a now former headmaster he hired nearly a decade ago and then later fired, who then sued him in 2013 or so. And in its particulars, well, Sparks doesn’t exactly come out looking like the squeaky clean author of A Walk To Remember.

And that is bad, don’t get me wrong. I am not apologizing for nor defending Sparks’ views on race and sex in any way. Indeed I personally think his views are idiotic at best, but are also views that having grown up in South, I shared long ago before my own eyes were opened via various life experiences.

But that actually isn’t what I want to discuss here, as it is being heavily dissected elsewhere. What I want to discuss here is more akin to the actual Booklandia controversy around him, and in particular the claim that “he isn’t a romance author”.

Now, I’ve gone to war several times – including over the last week – with Romance Writers of America (RWA) (and regional variants) Board Members over this, but the sheer simple fact is that they will not change me, nor will I change them. For many various reasons both deep seated internally and economically, they have their particular views about exactly what is “in” as a “romance novel”, and because of those particular reasons they will never truly get what I am saying here.

But I’m a guy that doesn’t even believe all life *must* be carbon based, that allows for the possibility even among the most bedrock of scientific principles that there is a *possibility* that we are wrong in some minor or major way and that “reality” isn’t thus what we currently believe “reality” to be.

In matters of style – and all writing is *completely* a matter of style – I am far more open. There literally are no set rules. What is popular today might not be popular in 10 yrs. What sells millions of copies now may struggle to sell tens of copies in a century. And a good story is a good story, no matter what rules it breaks or follows.

My own definition of a “romance novel” is any novel wherein the love story in the book is the primary driving narrative. The RWA purists insist that at minimum it include a Happily Ever After (HEA), and since Sparks never includes an HEA, he is by their definition not a romance author. And in truth, the case could in fact be made that since a romantic *tragedy* is almost always how Sparks’ books turn out, that he is actually a tragedy author. But when was the last time you heard of a book marketed as a tragedy selling what Sparks has?

But romance novels aren’t the only ones that have their “rules”, they’re just the only one I know of to officially “codify” them. (Though some have attempted to codify Christian Fiction as well, I am unaware of any agency within Christian Fiction that is similar to RWA.) Most any genre has a general arc somewhat specific to that particular genre. An adventure novel is almost always going to have some small team looking for some historical artifact in some remote region and facing some form of bad guy also after the same artifact. A military technothriller is almost always going to open up with some battle or some test of some new hardware and proceed into a full scale battle to save the world from some enemy that is always at least a step behind in some way.

And RWA types (and to almost as bad of an extent, Christian Fiction types in at least some circles) are the only ones I’ve seen to be so exclusionary – indeed, they are as exclusionary of other works as Sparks himself is of other people. In most other genres, if you want to say “My book is this, but it has these other features”, they’re largely going to say “awesome, you do you bro”. In romance world, if you try to say “My book is a love story, but it doesn’t end well”… prepare for the torches and pitchforks.

Which is a shame, because while books that fit within the “rules” can be great, in all honesty after a while they start bleeding together and it becomes difficult to tell one book from another or in some cases even one author from another.

Have enough courage to at least spill outside the mold a bit. Give us *some* wrinkle we’re not going to find with anyone else. And if you can have the true bravery to absolutely shatter the mold – as I have indeed seen some authors do – even better.

Book CounterPoint: Perfectly Good Crime by Dete Meserve

Moments ago, I wrote the Featured New Release of the Week post for this week, which features Perfectly Good Crime by Dete Meserve. I spent a large part of this review speaking about something that was the thing about this book that primarily resonated with me and intrigued me about this book, yet I felt it was a spoiler to reveal it. Other reviews have since already spoiled this particular topic, but even now I feel the need to hide the rest of this commentary behind a Continue Reading tag, so if you are reading beyond this point,

READER BEWARE: I CONSIDER THE BELOW DISCUSSION TO CONTAIN SPOILERS TO THIS BOOK!
Continue reading “Book CounterPoint: Perfectly Good Crime by Dete Meserve”

#ActuallyAutistic Novels for #AutismAwareness Day

Today is World Autism Awareness Day, and this book blogger is Autistic… and a publisher of an Autistic author that writes about Autistic characters.

In celebration, and to try to raise some awareness of at least some excellent books featuring Autistic characters living fairly realistic lives, let’s look at some books featuring Autistic characters, shall we?

First up is the first book I ever really saw that featured Autistic characters well. This is The Spectrum Chick and The Spectrum Chick II by Janey Klunder, and these are two of the books I have published myself via KDP. That said, I have no direct stake in their success – I’ve never made a penny from them and I never will. These books begin with the day a young twenty something Scottish lass first hears the word “Asperger’s” and follow her throughout the next few years of her life as she learns that a word just gives you an easier way to communicate something that has always been a part of you. Janey happens to be Autistic herself and shows the perspective of female Autistics well.

The next book was my introduction to a new author I’ve since come to enjoy – DJ Jamison’s Love by Number. This was a book where an overprotected Autistic young man finds love after a car crash in the parking lot at the ball park, and it portrayed the hyper focus we can get in particular very well – for its strengths and weaknesses. DJ is a mom of an Autistic, and far more open to our struggled and victories than many “Autism parents”.

Finally, I want to highlight At War with a Broken Heart by Dahlia Donovan. This is another gay romance, though this one happens to be a polyamorous gay romance to boot. I read an ARC of this particular book back in February, and its depiction of its Autistic main character (and even his brother, who is also Autistic but mostly off screen) was so spot on that I almost knew the author had to be either Autistic herself or have a very close family member that was Autistic (ala DJ, above). As it turns out, Dahlia too is Autistic.

Honorable Mentions to the following books for at least featuring Autistic characters in a positive way, even though the authors have no direct connection to an Autistic that I am aware of:

Brilliance by Marcus Sakey, which features people with superpowers – and these superpowers are all based on their Autistic traits, in a “next level of evolution” kind of set up. The entire trilogy is simply excellent.

The Eye of God by James Rollins is fairly deep into his Sigma Force series, but features a group of Autistic kids as a driving narrative – again in almost a “next level of evolution” kind of way.

I’m sure there are many more books that portray my people in a positive or at least real light. Feel free to name them in the comments. I’ll probably wind up adding them to my own TBR. 🙂

Book Outrage In The Era of Self Publishing

Over the last couple of weeks, a couple of different outrages have been ravaging the book world. In one, a romance publisher that published predominantly non-white authors shut its doors claiming low sales, while a particular seller claims that sales of non-white authors’ books account for 60% of its bestsellers. In the other, at least one author is complaining about the amount of physical bookstore shelf space dedicated to the works of J.R.R. Tolkien.

These controversies wouldn’t normally seem to be linked, but in the era of self publishing they most certainly are.

In the era of self publishing and in the new freelance economy, quite honestly the Mega Publishers don’t have the stranglehold on the market they once did. There is no doubt that they still hold considerable sway, I’m not denying that reality at all. I am simply noting that in this new era, one does not have to possess the ability to churn out hundreds of thousands of printed books and distribute them to a worldwide network of physical stores to be able to publish a book and have it do well enough to support an author.

Indeed, in my near decade of being Kindle exclusive, I have read literally hundreds of books – over 400 verified books in just the last 3.25 years alone. While I do not keep track of the actual publisher of the books I read, I can tell you from having run experiments trying to find them in my local brick and mortar stores that such stores normally only carry about 10% of the books I’ve read. Using the 400 number, that means that I’ve read 360 books in 3.25 years that you will never find on a shelf of a physical bookstore. And since my average lifetime rating on Goodreads is around 4.8 stars, it is rare that I find a book I don’t like. So clearly there are many quality books out there that don’t find themselves on the shelves of at least the physical bookstores I have checked.

But what about the actual controversies? Should publishers make a concerted effort to publish minority books or books featuring minorities on the covers? Should physical stores devote less space to legendary authors in order to give a wider range of authors a chance?

I’m not going to directly answer those questions, as I think they are actually irrelevant.

You see, in the Era of Self Publishing, there are actually better questions to ask:

If I see a particular group not being served well enough, is there a chance to make money myself by serving that group? If I see a particular small subset of authors dominating a particular space, is there a way to make money by highlighting other authors in other spaces?

Ultimately, for authors and publishers in particular, the book business is indeed a business. Yes, you want to create things you are proud of, but you also want to be able to feed your family with the money you earn from people paying for your creation. And so that means that you have to find ways to do that – which is why these controversies exist. The thought there is that these authors are owed these publishers or shelf space.

Instead, why don’t we seek out alternatives? Invest in or create new publishers that serve these particular niches. Invest in or create new marketing companies to push these books just as hard as the Mega Publishers’ internal marketing personnel do. Figure out exactly how they operate – and it isn’t exactly a secret – and figure out ways to undercut and oversell them. Any elephant can be eaten one bite at a time, no matter how big or ornery it is.

And the Era of Self Publishing, the freelance economy, make all of this possible.

We see it every day. 20 years ago, the taxi cab companies were the only real way to get around many urban areas. Getting in with them was a pain, but nearly instantly rewarding. Now with the rise of Uber, Lyft, and others, far more people can provide cabbie services far more effectively… and the cabbie companies of old are falling.

Why can’t the same thing happen to the Mega Publishers? Are authors any less creative than Uber drivers? Can we not find some way to undercut the Megas?

Wait a minute. What if I as an Autistic began publishing Autistic authors via Kindle Direct Publishing (which now includes CreateSpace for actual printing of physical books)? Could I get an author published that a Mega might never take a risk on? Oh yeah, I’ve been doing that far longer than I’ve been operating this site, and almost longer than I’ve been reviewing books. And I’m open to taking on more authors. I’m open to showing you what I know so that you can serve your community just as I serve mine. I relish the opportunity to help others – and to compete with them. There is more than enough money to be had in the book space for all of us, there is no real reason to hoard knowledge or opportunity.

And there is no reason for outrage that someone else isn’t doing something that you can do for yourself with a little hard work.

How Can I Get Advance Review Copies?

One of the singular most common questions one will encounter in almost any group of readers where one member of the group mentions having recieved an ARC is “How can I get one?”. It is a question asked with somewhat alarming regularity, to the level that some authors have recently spoken up about writing being a business – and they are not wrong.

As we saw in the discussion of the business justification for Advance Review Copies, ARCs are, when used ideally, loss leaders for the publishing agent – the idea is to give away X copies of the book in anticipation that these free copies will generate AX sales, where the larger A is the more money those involved in writing and publishing the book are making. As a business strategy, it suffers one flaw that could one day prove to be fatal:

Not all people requesting ARCs are trustworthy.

They either are not aware of ARC etiquette or actively ignore it. While little can be done about someone who actively ignores ARC etiquette other than not giving them an ARC in the future, I am seeing more and more publishing agents being more and more explicit about ARC etiquette before selecting a given reader to receive an ARC.

Which leads directly to the titular question here: What can a given reader do to increase their chances of receiving an ARC?

The obvious first answer is to ask. This is a bit bold if you are unknown to the publishing agent, and I do NOT recommend this. Certainly not unless the publishing agent at least has some idea of who you are.

But in general, one should work to prove they are trustworthy from the publishing agent’s perspective. Show them why they can trust you to uphold ARC etiquette. No author wants to give away a book to someone who is just looking for free books. They are, after all, running a business. They need to have some indication that you can benefit their business, and that you aren’t just there for yourself.

How can one do this? There are a few things that come readily to mind:

  • Review books you are reading, even without these books being ARCs. This shows the publishing agent that not only do you read with some regularity, but that you also review even when you don’t necessarily have to – you want to tell others about the books you enjoy, even when you paid for the book yourself. I can tell you that my own ARC work picked up heavily after I began making it a point to review literally every single book I read, though to an extent this was a bit coincidental. However, given that many publishing agents ask for your Goodreads profile before approving a given reader, it is somewhat expected that they are checking your profile for frequency and quality of reviews you’ve already done. I actually was sent an ARC invitation just this morning simply due to the fact that a personal assistant to a particular author had seen my reviews for the prior books in the series this new book will be in on Goodreads – that particular author has never been featured here, as I read her books before this project existed.
    • But Jeff! Where should I review books? In general, review the book at the point of purchase – the website of wherever you bought it. In addition to this. Amazon and Goodreads are always good places for book reviews. Bookbub has become another one that authors are beginning to request more frequently.
    • And what should I put in my review? My advice here tends to be to write even just a few words – I think Amazon requires around 20 or so – about how you felt about the book. The people who write the description of the book agonize over how to present the overall plot of the book without giving too much away, so you don’t need to worry about that. Note anything that stood out to you that is NOT a spoiler, be it the author’s writing style, the cadence of the story, a particular character you loved, really anything. Your perspective on a book could be the thing that convinces someone else to buy the book, so just speak from your heart about how you felt about the book. There really isn’t more to it that that.
  • Follow publishing agents on social media. This serves a dual purpose in this particular context. For one, it shows that you a reader are interest in their work. You’re not just some bum looking for a handout, you actually want to know them and what they are doing. Also, at least some publishing agents are known to announce ARC giveaways or ARC group membership openings via their social media pages, so you can potentially get an ARC just from this.
  • Engage with publishing agents on social media. This one is similar to the last, but more involved. Basically, get to know them and let them know about you. Show that you are a dedicated fan and potentially even develop a level of a friendship with them. Basic human psychology tells us that someone is more likely to grant a favor to a friend than a random stranger, so being aware of who you are and having a positive experience with you can in fact go a long way here. This is actually how I got my start with ARCs, and how I’ve gotten several of them over the years – including some recent ones, after my reviews were already speaking for themselves in their frequency and quality.

Others may have other “strategies”, but the above is how I’ve gotten as involved with ARCs as I am.

But let me re-iterate:

BE. GENUINE.
BE. NICE.
BE. GRACIOUS.

Hell, that’s just good life advice – particularly when you want something from another person.

The Business of Advance Review Copies

In the next few days, I am going to write an article with my answer to the age old question: “How can I get an ARC?”.

But in thinking about my answer to that question, I realized that there is a more critical topic that needs to be discussed before we can intelligently look at how to obtain an ARC – “What are ARCs and why do they exist?”

Quite simply, Advance Review Copies are the literary equivalent of an early screening of a movie – they exist as part of a marketing strategy to build word of mouth (aka “buzz”) about a particular book in the days/ weeks/ sometimes even months before its release. But the goal is always pretty obvious: To sell more books. Period.

It doesn’t matter if a particular author just wants to be published at all and would maybe like to make enough money from their book to buy a Nintendo Switch or if the author in question is a “mega/ mega” – has a mega contract with a major publishing house. At the end of the day, writing books is a business and it is about making money. Yes, authors by their nature are very creative people. And particularly at the Indie level, they tend to be almost Renaissance People with how many different artistic abilities they have to have, since they themselves do *every* job that a major publishing house can farm off to dozens or potentially even hundreds of people. But at the end of the day, the goal is always the same: to sell this product – in this case, books – to make money. And the money isn’t just for the author, even on the indie level. While the author and their family are important enough, many times authors will realize that they are simply not capable of being a master of all things, even if they have the ability to do all things – which not all authors have to begin with. So an entire industry of assistants and editors and cover designers and marketers exists even in the indie realm, though obviously with a fair degree more independence and a fair degree more reliance on individual books selling particularly well.

There are many components to making a book stand out. It needs a compelling story, obviously – but there are many compelling stories that you will never hear of. It needs a solid, eye catching and mind engaging title – but there again, there are books with such titles that do not get the attention of others with lesser titles. It needs to be from an author that a reader recognizes – but how do you get this recognition without selling more books? It needs a compelling cover, preferably one that relates to the book in some way – but again, other books have sold well with little more than the title and author name in black ink on a white background. Once all of these factors draw a reader to at least glance at the book’s description, that discription needs to compel them to buy the book if the other things didn’t quite get them to do so.

And while all of these are important, there is one step in there that is specifically where Advance Reader Copies come in: what the marketing people call “brand recognition”. Maybe it is just the author – which is excellent and can lead to major sales in and of itself. (Looking at you, Stephen King, Lee Child, Nicholas Sparks, among many, many others.) Sometimes it is just the title – “1984” is arguably more well known than “written by George Orwell”.

In order to build this “brand recognition”, businesses – not just authors, but businesses generally – are often willing to incur small, short duration losses if they can genuinely expect these losses to lead to larger gains in the mid to long term than would be possible without these losses. The business people even have a term for this: “loss leaders”. The entire definition of the concept is simply “a product sold at a loss to attract customers”.

Which is exactly what an ARC is – literally giving a book away for free in the hope that it will attract many more paying customers. And this is the very reason ARC etiquette is so very important – if you don’t leave the review or if you share the ARC with someone without permission, you are cutting into the very reason you as an ARC reader exist. And if it ever gets to the point where ARCs stop leading to higher sales in the long run because of poor etiquette on the part of ARC readers, it will no longer make business sense to offer ARCs at all.

On the other side, of course, are the Lee Childs and Stephen Kings and such who already have such brand recognition that loss leaders are far less critical, and therefore can be far more tightly constrained so as to maximize profits. (Though even Lee Child’s latest Jack Reacher book was on NetGalley for ARC copies, though I didn’t have the courage to apply for it, anticipating the very scenario where such ARCs were only authorized for the biggest players in the review side of the business.)

Again, authors make money by *selling* books, not by giving them away… but Amazon and other retailers also trigger internal promotion mechanisms based on a critical mass of reviews, and it is via this very “priming the pump” mechanism that ARCs become loss leaders.

If a particular book can get X number of reviews in Y period – whatever those numbers are, and I don’t think Amazon actually releases them, for somewhat obvious reasons – then Amazon, one of the most powerful retailers on the planet today, becomes at least somewhat of an ally in helping the publishing agents to sell books. And often the best way to hit that target is to give away ideally exactly that number of ARCs and have every single person that receives one leave a review within the time period needed. But unfortunately not everyone can be trusted, and unfortunately far too many break the (usually implicit, but I see becoming explicit more and more often these days) ARC “contract”. So publishing agents have to have ways of finding out how sincere and trustworthy you are, and that is the very subject of the next post.

So there you have it – a brief look at the business side of ARCs. Next time, we look at ARCs from the intersection of the business and the reader and explain some ideas of how and why certain actions can help a reader be a better candidate to receive ARCs – to become a loss leader – while other actions may make a particular reader a less desirable candidate.

The Ethics of Sharing Advance Reader Copies

Last month, I wrote about a troubling trend I’ve been made aware of recently among Advance Reader Copy (ARC) readers. Continuing discussions around ARCs, mostly with fellow ARC readers this time, has revealed another troubling topic.

Specifically, the question has come up in multiple discussions on different walls and groups regarding what to do with ARC copies once you are done with them and in particular whether it is acceptable to share them.

The very first time an author gave me a book – I don’t even remember if it was an actual ARC or not – was several years ago now. I had been reading this author for several years already and had interacted online with them for at least a few of them, and had been absolutely devouring a particular series. But I was unexpectedly let go from my job – just a couple of weeks before the new book in the series came out. This author was kind enough to send me a copy of the book at their own expense, even the shipping. But they specifically told me that I was to never give the book to anyone else.

Thus, my first “ARC” came with explicit instructions.

Over the years, I would become more active with more ARC work for more authors, and at least for me it was always understood implicitly that these ARCs were never to be shared without explicit permission from the person who gave them to me. It honestly got to the level that I just assumed everyone understood this, particularly anyone who accepts ARCs.

But these recent discussions have revealed that many people do not know, either from not being told, not thinking about it, or actively avoiding finding out. Some think that it is acceptable to give the books to just a single other person. Others think it is acceptable to donate the ARC to a library, be it public or church. Still others go so far as to think it is ok to actively sell these ARCs to used bookstores.

Dear reader, let me be explicitly clear: To my understanding of the implicit contract of accepting an ARC, you have exactly two duties:

  1. Leave an honest review in open book review forums. Consult the person who gives you the ARC for specifics, but generally at least Amazon and/ or Goodreads.
  2. Keep the ARC to yourself. Do not ever pass it to anyone else without explicit authorization from the publishing agent (author and/ or publisher).

To violate either of these two basic rules is, to put it bluntly, theft.

I dealt with the first case in the post last month.

In the case of the second rule, you are stealing from them via denying them the sale that would occur if whoever you give the book to were forced to instead buy it from the author. That is a bit more concrete case of theft than the first – no longer are we talking theoretical sales, now we have discrete persons to point to. *That* person would have been a sale had you not given the book away without permission.

But Jeff, what about second hand sales? Don’t I have a right to sell any book I have? NO! In at least some countries (including the US, where I am based), you do in fact have a right to sell any book *that you purchase* to anyone you so choose, via yard sale, giving it to a library, selling it to a used bookstore, or anywhere else. To my knowledge, the legislative acts that permit this – and there are pros and cons to even this system – do NOT cover ARCs. But I could potentially be wrong on that point, in which case I hope a lawyer familiar with literary legal issues will chime in at some point. HOWEVER, even if it is “legal” under the legislative acts, that does NOT make it ethically correct, and in that sense “theft” is a correct term regardless of specific legislative acts.

But now let us turn to what can be done about this phenomenon?

For one, I think we can have these conversations where we illuminate what is happening and why it is wrong.

For two, I think authors can be explicit when giving ARCs, even if just the first time. Such as this statement that was on the signup form for an ARC group I applied for just this morning:

ARC Non Disclosure Agreement: By clicking ‘YES’ to request an Advanced Review Copy of any book by [Author] you are acknowledging that the ARC is copyrighted material protected by [Author’s country] and International copyright laws. Furthermore, by accepting an Advanced Review Copy of any book by [Author], you agree that you will not distribute, copy or share your advanced copy to or with any person or entity without prior written consent from [Author]. If it is discovered that you have violated this agreement, [Author] reserves all legal rights available to [Author pronoun], including pursuing a lawsuit for breach of contract which may claim damages including, but not limited to, lost profits caused by the violating distribution.

And maybe we can re-iterate these points from time to time in ARC oriented groups, just as many corporations have ongoing training for employees just to remind them of things they already know.

These issues have been shocking to me to discover – maybe I’m just too much of a goody two shoes at times. But by working together, we, the people of the written word, can work to put an end to them.

And no matter what, always remember:

Never give away an ARC without explicit permission to do so from the publishing agent.

The Troubling Trend with ARC Readers

As the end of the year (and the holiday season) approaches, I’m noticing authors asking for reviews more than normal- which they tend to do at this time of year, as more and newer reviews tend to kick AI algorithms at various retail/ recommendation sites into gear.

And that is all well and good, but I’ve also become much more involved as an ARC reader this year, branching out from doing it consistently for one author to joining a few different ARC programs for various publishers, genres, and general (NetGalley). And it is within this ARC work that I’ve been noticing a troubling trend over the last few weeks in particular, though I’ve seen evidence of it literally for years.

That trend?

People who will receive an Advance Reader Copy from an author or publisher with the understanding that the person will read it and leave a review of the book, with most authors and publishers desiring the review to be left on release day or week… and then not leave a review.

Now, the various “publishing agents” (authors, publishers, and anyone else giving out ARCs) will usually try to gently remind people to leave the reviews and couch it in conciliatory language such as “Maybe you got busy or forgot, but could you please leave your review this week” or some such. Others are quicker to remove the reader from the ARC program.

But here, on this blog today, I want to speak to these readers a bit directly:
Continue reading “The Troubling Trend with ARC Readers”