Saturday, November 30, 2013

Concerns about self-publishing, paid reviews, and sales rank tricks.

This post addresses some of the things that bother me. Since I'm a self-published author myself, you may call me a hypocrite. Yes, I know the rant is long, but please read on. If you end up finding the post interesting, please feel free to repost elsewhere with a link back to this post. If there is a discussion (and I hope there is one), I would like to keep it all in one place. 

In recent years, we have witnessed an unprecedented surge in self-publishing. For authors, this publishing revolution means a lot more than just one additional option to reach an audience. Many authors have struggled for years to find the right publisher, sending out hundreds of queries and accumulating an equal number of rejections, which arrived, more often than not, as unhelpful form letters. Yet the authors persisted, hoping to catch a break somewhere along the way. To be honest, publishers look for marketability, and profit is their bottom line. The small, independent presses that are more likely to publish less commercial material release only a handful of books each year, yet receive thousands of submissions. Thus, to many authors, self-publishing became a viable option.

To readers, self-publishing offers a never-before-seen choice of genres and styles. As a reader, I can now find books dealing with obscure subjects, twisted tales of any sort, cookbooks from countries I never knew existed, and the list goes on and on.

Then, there is the other side to self-publishing - the traditionally published author whose titles were out-of-print, and the reader who is looking for older works by a favorite author. In this instance, self-publishing is most certainly a viable option, and readers are quite receptive of this. 

Before e-books, when POD (print on demand) first became publicly available, many unscrupulous companies that offered self-publishing packages to frustrated authors arrived with it. Many of them charged hundreds and even thousands of dollars, made the author purchase a bulk of the books, and asked for a list of family members. I won't mention names, but if you were in this business more than five years ago, you can probably think of at least one.
Nevertheless, there were also companies that were honest about what they could do for an author, charged only minimum fees, and are still around today.

At the advent of POD, an author had to typeset the book, design a cover, and pay a fee to access a distribution network. Sure, there were some that did not care, but most did. After all, it was a chance to finally offer a book to the public, to hold one's written words in a book form.

Then came the e-book, and everything changed. An author today can create a digital file, use a stock photo, and publish a 'book' on Amazon in a matter of hours. And not only Amazon, but also just about every major book retailer worldwide. Hail the e-book revolution!

Not so fast.

With e-books arrived a new breed of 'authors'. I use the word authors with caution, and I use it only reluctantly. So, let's call them e-authors. E-authors publish only e-books. "Print is dead!" The shout rings over the digital landscape.
No, print is not dead. Print sells less because it costs more, does not arrive instantly, and cannot be read with the click of a button.

As a reader, you have your own reasons to choose either e-books or print books, and the reasons and choices are yours alone. No questions asked. I, for one, cannot read e-books. I need a paper book in my hand; the feel of pages between my fingers is magical, and there is nothing that can replace it.

Allow me to go back to e-authors. As is true in any business, there are good apples and bad apples. However, since e-publishing does not require an up-front investment, is almost instantaneous, and does not have any sort of "quality control", an author can easily rush to click the "publish" button. Looking at reviews and previews, one can easily find books that were not proofread, edited, or even formatted properly.

Of course this does not mean that all e-books are inferior and formulaic, even though one can easily find discussions about book that were just that. There are many e-authors who take pride in their work and put out quality products. The biggest issues I see with e-books, especially genre e-books, are lack of proofreading and factual inaccuracy. The stories themselves may be great, but the execution could be improved if the author spent more time editing.

So, what is a reader to do? Until recently, readers could rely on two sources - sales rank and reviews. Sales rank (Amazon, B&N, Kobo, et cetera) can tell the reader whether a particular book is selling well. Reviews, whether professional or readers' reviews, can tell the reader what others thought of a book. In an ideal world, those two alone should be sufficient to weed out the inferior books.

Unfortunately, we do not live in an ideal world. We live in a flawed world full of flawed characters. The e-book revolution brought with it a new industry - an industry catering to authors. There are now companies that offer paid reviews, as well as companies that manipulate sales ranks. This, as one poster recently mentioned, prompts the question: Is there anything real anymore?

In an era where an author with a few hundred dollars to spend has the ability to manipulate the sales rank of their title AND purchase dozens of five-star reviews, where does that leave the reader?

Personally, I have absolutely no respect for any author who engages in any such activity. I find it dishonest, unscrupulous, and dishonorable. Let's call it as it is: Fake reviews are not worth shit! How can anyone pay for praise and call himself an author is something I will never understand. Yet, looking on Internet forums, one can find authors who not only engage in these activities, but they even boast about it. I can't even begin to tell you how many threads I see daily where authors swap purchases, reviews, Facebook "likes", Tweets, et cetera. And then, to top it off, I get emails from companies trying to sell me their service of "purchase swaps" to boost my Amazon sales rank.

These companies came on the heels of the e-book revolution. Sure, in our consumer-driven world, if there is a market, someone will step-up to offer the service. But is there really a need for such a service? Are the authors who pay for these services truly unscrupulous, or are they just unsuspecting sheep lured by the wolf?

To answer this question, we have to take into consideration the current state of our culture. Mass media has taken hold of the public, feeding us a constant stream of junk that is no more than a popularity contest. On any network, we are barraged with celebrity news, and useless facts about select few who, for some reason, demand constant attention. Opening your Internet browser yields the same results. The last generation has grown up in with information at their fingertips, yet the information is often being used in a meaningless way. The media have created a culture of instant gratification, of entitlement, and of obsession with fame. Emerging authors, more often than not, are trying to compete for attention with established authors. With self-publishing, money is almost always the issue, and professional marketing firms charge more than most budgets allow for. When you have self-publishing success stories openly admitting to purchasing reviews, and not being chastised for it, the newcomers also think this is an acceptable business model.

Thus, the failed circle continues. Emerging authors expect to be noticed. When they are not (and how could they with hundreds of thousands of new titles released each year), they look for other options, for the little something that will help to get them the attention. That's when these companies step in, stroking egos with positive reviews, and promising sales with their trading tricks. And the emerging author? Well, it is easy to fall into the trap.   

So, is there anything real anymore? There is. There are authors who, although self-published, take their craft seriously. There are authors who take pride in what they do. They may not have high sales ranking, may only have a handful of reviews, and not sell a lot of books. But I can almost guarantee you that they sleep well at night.

I have found many self-published authors who write serious, beautiful books that would not have been published otherwise. Their work is often timeless and not whatever the latest craze dictates. They have been publishing for years, submitting to magazines and e-zines, and posting honest reviews of others' books. Although, to tell the truth, I spoke with a lot of authors who stopped reviewing altogether because of the backlash they received for being honest.

So, dear readers and authors, here we are at the end of my little rant. I feel sorry for my fellow readers, because the task of knowing what is real and what is not real is not going to get any easier. Please, don't disregard self-published titles - but do your research. My fellow authors, please take comfort in knowing that you are doing the right thing. Let's be honest - a self-published author cannot make a living off writing alone. Sure there are exceptions, but not many. I can neither tell you what to do, nor have I any right to tell you what to do. Just know that writing is a passion, not a popularity contest.

I hope this post will spark a discussion. I hope this post will make emerging authors think twice before paying a company to buy 'reputation'. I hope this post will resonate with readers who have either positive or negative experience with new authors. At the same time, I know that this post will offend someone. Well, it is what it is.

Readers, has your experiences encouraged you or discouraged you to purchase self-published books?

Authors, how do you feel about the unscrupulous practices taking place?

And overall, what do you like/dislike about the current state of self-publishing? What would you change? 

Thank you for considering my words.

A disclaimer: I am a self-published author. I started with Lulu in 2006 and moved to CreateSpace in 2012. My books are available both in print and as e-books. Even though I enjoy self-publishing, I also have a folder full of rejection letters (mostly form letters) dating back ten years. The only 'social media' I engage in is Goodreads, where I post honest reviews and comments. 

An example of a site offering paid reviews:

An article in NY Times:

An example of purchase swaps:

Monday, November 25, 2013

If on a Winter's Night a Traveler... a review

If on a Winter's Night a TravelerIf on a Winter's Night a Traveler by Italo Calvino
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

If on a Winter's Night a Traveler...

Italo Calvino opens up his masterpiece in the second person, addressing and engaging the reader in a very direct way; a powerful, uncompromising way: Here you are - the reader; and here I am - the protagonist; the author is somewhere else, as impertinent to the story as is his publisher. It is what it is, and you, the reader, are here with me, sucked into the depths of my mind, where you'll trip over threads that are seemingly random, unrelated and without ends, yet serve a purpose that you may or may not grasp unless you persist until the closing lines fade away as you turn the last page over and walk away, pensive, wondering whether you can make any sense of this work at all.

You are thrust into the story without any regard for your emotional state. Calvino grabs you and drags you through towns, scenes, countries, and minds -- playing a game of marbles with your emotions. Here now, gone on the next page, the stories unfold, hang suspended in the air for a while, then end abruptly while your frustration spirals out of control, only to confirm that the main thread, the second person you is still a part of the story, the only part that brings any lucidity to the seemingly random order of events. But the events are not random, oh no. The stories are calculated; each revealing a bit more about the plot you are a part of, and each advancing the ever-thickening mystery that surrounds Ludmilla. For it she that you desire, and your desire to continue reading for reading's sake alone is only a farce, because from the beginning you wanted to be with her, to partake in reading while sharing a bed together.

Calvino, however, knows no mercy. I should have known by now that his novels are not an easy read. His novels are complicated, extraordinary puzzles that produce more questions than answers. His prose, however, wraps you in silky-smooth sentences that scream comfort while your inner peace drains out of you, leaving a mess of emotions that you, alone, must piece together when the book ends.

When I've read Invisible Cities, I struggled to describe what it was that I was reading. The same rings true here. If on a Winter's Night a Traveler... is impossible to assess. Is it a novel? Is it a compilation of eleven different novels? Is it a plethora of philosophical arguments? Is it a showcase of Calvino's capabilities as a writer? Is it a lecture on society?

It is all of the above! Calvino is a master, a philosopher, a wandering mind, and an exceptional storyteller.

In today's genre-driven market where plots are recycled more often than not, Calvino's work stands as a prime example of an author who can create original plots and stories while maintaining a strange retrospection to stories we have already read. As a reader, I can relate to all of the opening chapters in this book, to the variety of his plots. As a thinker, I'm aware of the subtle messages about the state of our society, which are sprinkled throughout the book. As a writer, I'm humbled.

View all my reviews

Friday, November 22, 2013

Interview with Feliks

I met Feliks on Goodreads. Wait, let me rephrase this - I stumbled upon Feliks on Goodreads. To be honest, aside from a few interactions in various threads, I know nothing about Feliks. He commented on a thread I started, and contributed to the discussion in a very passionate and informed way. I do not always agree with his opinions, but I have to admit that he makes a convincing case.
Thus, intrigued as I was (and seeing that he has over 200 reviews under his belt), I invited him to participate in my little Interview series.

About: I have nothing to post here. Feliks did not answer this question, his profile is set to private, and he is as elusive as an eel. But behind the (intentional or unintentional) veil of mystery is a well-versed reader (judging by my interactions with him) who fights for what he believes is right, takes a stance and does not buckle, and expresses himself without reservations.  

Do you have specific genres that you review, and what is your favorite one?

Yes. I am fairly well-versed in the espionage genre. If you browse the books of Len Deighton or John leCarre, you will usually see a review of mine. A collection of shorter reviews --dwelling on the primary authors in this field--can be found here:

This came about accidentally but morphed into a mini-tutorial for readers new to this genre. The thread also covers action, mystery, and thriller.

On average, how many books do you review each month?

Three or four at most. I only review books which for some reason, have resurfaced in my memory and spontaneously generated fresh excitement; ideally books which are potential new favorites for readers as-yet-unaware-of-them.

For instance I was musing last month on William Goldman and 'Marathon Man' and then got to thinking that few people these days probably are aware of the very-obscure sequel, and I found myself excited about turning people on to it. So I sat down and did my best to summarize it.

Do you accept unsolicited review requests, or do you only review books you select yourself?

What are 'unsolicited review requests'? I've never heard of such a thing. Do you mean a contemporary author who wants me to read his book on order that I may then, review it for him? What nonsense.

Considering the recent surge of self-published books on the market, what is your experience with self-published titles?

Cynicism. Its like asking me whether I think that the tiny little portable cameras everyone totes around these days, makes average citizens into bonafide movie directors. Uploading videos to YouTube isn't directing; and mere e-publishing isn't 'being an author' (to my mind). Its just adding a push-button automated process to flood the world with mediocrity. Talent isn't distributed in that manner, no matter if 'tools of the trade' are made available in droves. The internet is almost entirely an incubator for dilettantes.

The flip side is this: if a new John Kennedy O'Toole or a new Nick Drake emerge in this landscape, they won't have to commit suicide. But really, is that yet even a justification for the debasement of culture in such massive fashion? Said another way: is it fair to let symphony orchestras go bankrupt so that new, up-and-coming garage bands can get their big breaks?

As a reviewer, you have to state your honest opinions. Do you publish all reviews regardless of the rating?

I don't understand the question. If I've rated a book I don't care who has an issue with it. If I'm bruising someone's feelings, tough luck!

Is there any particular book or author that set the benchmark for you in a specific genre?

LeCarre, best espionage fiction
(his 'Honourable Schoolboy' gets my vote for best modern British novel as well as best spy novel ever written)
Dickens (Little Dorritt) best 19th C Brit Lit
Thomas Mann, ('Magic Mountain') best 20th C. pre-war European lit
Thomas Pynchon ('V.')... best postwar American novel
Melville's 'Moby Dick', best 18th C American novel
'Gatsby', best American novel (pre-war)
'The Friends of Eddie Coyle', best American crime novel (post war)
'Red Harvest' best USA crime novel (pre-war)
'The Last Good Kiss' modern USA crime novel
Evelyn Waugh's 'Black Mischief' best black comedy
Joan Didion, best American nonfiction essayist
Shirley Jackson, best American author 20th century (post-war)
Shirley Jackson, best horror novelist
Shirley Jackson, best female author all-time, USA.

...and on and on and on.

What was the catalyst for you to become a reviewer, and what keeps you going?

Just naturally gabby, I guess?

In your opinion, do you find the new titles original and creatively executed, or do you see more of a repeat of the same (think Hollywood's surge in remakes)?

Formula rules today's markets. Its depressing and shameful. Genre authors are one of three things:
1) money-grubbing
2) cowardly
3) Unequipped with the proper powers an author should possess

Its a dodge, a cop-out write in genre-fiction. It didn't used to be that way; but then in traditional publishing ruled by the Great Houses, your stuff had to be blazingly GOOD. E-authors copycatting each other's formulaic boilerplate templates and foisting it off on the unwitting public of today--via any unscrupulous and deceptive means possible--is a travesty.

Out of all the books you've read, are there any particular books or characters that stayed on your mind?

See above list in question #6.

What is the one review you are the most proud of, and why?

John LeCarre, 'The Honourable Schoolboy'.

I'd like to thank Feliks for playing along and sharing his opinions with me. If you have any comments, please share them here. 


Friday, November 15, 2013

Interview with Robin

My guest today is Robin, one of the top ten reviewers on GoodReads.


I absolutely love to read! I love to learn something new and I love to be thrilled by that perfect turn of phrase.

Do you have specific genres that you review, and what is your favorite one?

I review whichever genre is most important to my work. When I was an elementary school librarian, I read and reviewed just about every picture book, beginning reader, and middle grade novel I could. As I got to know my students, I narrowed my focus to the genres they favored; it was wonderful to be able to make spot-on recommendations and to chat with them about the stories they loved.

When I became a middle school librarian, I began to read a lot of YA, especially ‘books about love’ as my 8th grade girls requested. During this time, we started a goodreads account for the school where the kids could talk about the books they thought were great. I used what they shared to make collection development decisions for the school library. It was fabulous to have that input from the teens, and even better when they found the genres they loved on the shelves at school.

Now, I’m a public library librarian, and I get to read anything and everything I want! I still read a lot of YA fantasy and adventure stories. So many YA authors really know how to craft a gripping story and a character you can’t stop thinking about. I also especially love popular science and biographies. I love it when an author takes me somewhere I didn’t ever expect to go or teaches me something.

On average, how many books do you review each month?

I write a review of just about every book I read. Not all reviews are comprehensive -- I write them primarily for myself, as a place to keep my thoughts and impressions and to store those delicious quotes I want to remember.

Do you accept unsolicited review requests, or do you only review books you select yourself?

Typically, I review books I’ve chosen myself. Recently, I’ve begun having authors approach me to read and review their books. If they are interesting to me, I will.

Considering the recent surge of self-published books on the market, what is your experience with self-published titles?

As large publishing companies buy out smaller ones and are less inclined to take risks on publishing titles that might not make piles of money, the ability to self publish seems like a great thing. There could be some great gem out there that, otherwise, would never see the light of day. That said, we’ve purchased quite a few self-published titles for our library, and none have knocked my socks off. They suffer from an absence of good editing and design. It’s interesting that the self-publishing surge has resulted in an explosion of niche erotica, and that reading it seems to be much more socially acceptable than ever before.

As a reviewer, you have to state your honest opinions. Do you publish all reviews regardless of the rating?

I publish all of my reviews, regardless of the rating. I write my reviews for myself, as a personal record of my reading life, so that I can look back and remember what I thought and who in my life might enjoy a particular book. However, I do try to be polite. I always have in the forefront of my mind the simple fact that the author has written an actual book and I have not. The accomplishment itself counts for something.

Is there any particular book or author that set the benchmark for you in a specific genre?

I have my favorites. In particular, Ursula K. LeGuin continues to set the bar for thoughtful and mesmerizing fantasy. She is unmatched in world-creating and looking at the various ways human society can be.

What was the catalyst for you to become a reviewer, and what keeps you going?

I became a reviewer in order to do a better job of making reading recommendations to the kids I taught. I continue to keep a record for myself of the things I’ve read and what I’ve thought about them.

In your opinion, do you find the new titles original and creatively executed, or do you see more of a repeat of the same (think Hollywood's surge in remakes)?

I think there are only so many themes and scenarios; what make a book great is the author’s interpretation and skill with language. More than once I’ve read something with a derivative theme that turned out to be just a better book than the one that originated the concept.

Out of all the books you've read, are there any particular books or characters that stayed on your mind?

Harry, Hermione, Ron, Neville, and Luna! I was lucky enough to work with kids when these books came out. They are powerful! Readers continue to be engaged with these characters, wondering what they are doing and how they are faring, even years after the last book came out.

What is the one review you are the most proud of, and why?

I am proud of any review that encourages another reader to pick up the book.

I would like to thank Robin for answering my questions and for sharing her opinions regarding reviews. If you would like to find out more about Robin and her reviews, please click the following link to her profile:

If you would like to see someone featured here, drop me a line. Also, you can learn more about reviewers' opinions by clicking the "Interviews with the Reviewers" tag on the side bar. 

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Blood-stained Symphony

A room...a dust covered incandescent bulb radiates a stream of tired lumens outwards into the space framed by four walls, one ceiling, and some kind of a floor. There are neither windows nor doors—how did I am I going to exit? The floor squeaks but, since the light doesn’t reach the floorboards, I am not destined to find the source of that noise. What am I walking on?

The walls, unable to decide whether to be yellow or orange, finally settle on an awkward shade of ochre. It reminds me of the desert—the desert I never visited and never really intended to see. There is something about scorpions that makes me uneasy.

The ceiling hangs above me like heavily siliconized nipple–less breast. The plastics always scared me, unnaturally pointing forth...always forward, as if they had a place to be; like they were about to burst through the fabric and I was in the way of their freedom. Destination plasma. The ceiling bulges but remains above my head, its purple paint sparkling like a nest of freshly born stars.

I feel something warm in my hand. I take a few steps to-ward the light to see what it is. A parakeet. Its pale eyes stare at me from the round hole between my thumb and index finger. Its body shivers. Pacing back and forth, I begin to hum a lullaby. In the middle of the room, where the shadow is almost impenetrable, I trip. The Parakeet flies out my hand. It smashes into the wall with a muffled thump, and falls onto the floor. It’s no longer visible—does is really exist?

What did I trip over? I lean down and flick my lighter. A dark mass of twisted wood surfaces before my eyes. Running my fingers along the curved lines, I realize it is a chair. Strange...a chair in the middle of a room. Why is it here? I grab it by the backrest, kick its legs from side to side, (not to inflict pain, just hard enough to let it know who it is that is in charge here) and mount it. It tries to spring up to kick me off. I intertwine my legs underneath the seat. After a few minutes filled with heavy breathing and wood cracking, the chair gives up. It’s calm now.

I slide off, get down on my belly, and slither across the room, feeling my way around. On the twenty–eighth pass, I stumble upon the Parakeet. I pick it up, hide it in the palm of my hand, and mount the chair again. This time it knows better than to fight back. The chair, the light bulb, the Parakeet, and I...we spend a few minutes contemplating upon the ochre on the walls. Neither of us likes it. The Parakeet begins to shiver.

I move my hand closer to my mouth and breathe on him. Intoxicated by the fumes, he relaxes and lets out a peep. I run my finger through the soft feathers on his head. He peeps once more, as if clearing his throat, and then lets loose, filling the room with the most intricate symphony. The chair moves its legs, the ceiling sways, and the light bulb flickers—all in perfect rhythm with the bird. For a moment, it matters not that we are together, parts of a nonsense trap. As the finale builds up, the parakeet releases the final note with an extraordinary tension, then falls silent. The room follows suite.

The chair no longer moves, the ceiling stops swaying, the light bulb once again casts its tired light. Exhausted by his performance, the bird breathes heavily. It was so beautiful! His act touched me so deeply that I want him to be a part of me...forever. I lift him up, his tiny head poking through the hole between my thumb and index finger, and bring him close to my mouth. He looks at me, his small shiny eyes full of confusion. I bring my hand to my lips. I feel his head in my mouth; I feel his sharp nails scratch at my hand. I shut my teeth together.

There is a crunch. The small bones in his neck are no match against my bite. His legs twitch...once, twice, then grow quiet. My mouth fills with a warm iron taste. I chew, crushing the little bones before swallowing. The head is inside me, part of me, one with me. The symphony is mine.

I open my mouth to release the tones, but all that comes out are a few green feathers stained with blood. Disgusted, I bring my hand closer to my eyes and stare at the neck–less body lying there. A streak of dark colored blood gushes from the cavity, staining my iridescent skin.

Suddenly inspired, I stand up and rush over to the wall. Poem, I must write a poem! I dip my fingers in the blood and set to write upon the wall. The ugly ochre is a better background than none.

His omnipresence reigns through the notes,
when the orchestra pays homage to his genius.

I stop. These words have no meaning...I am a failure. How could I ever commemorate the talented bird? A feather flies out of my mouth when I try to argue with myself. I throw the dead body in to a corner and turn around.

First step, I trip over some dark mass that was hiding behind me. The chair! The damn chair followed me here. I turn ninety degrees and walk six steps to the left. Tamed and no longer rebellious, the chair follows me like a beaten dog. I turn sixty–three degrees to the right and then run until I reach the opposite wall. When I turn, the chair is right beside me. What if it bites me?

Unwilling to take a chance, I grab it by the backrest and throw it across the room. “I’ll show you who’s in charge here!” I leap forward, land next to it, roll my sleeves up, and get to work. The chair lies legs up. I grab two and start twisting them. The chair fights back, silently. The old dried wood holds together strong, but after a few well–placed kicks, the fibers give way. The chair lets out a loud crack.

I fight with it for what seems like eternity, but when I finally manage to break the joints and emerge from the fight holding one leg in each hand, the chair has no other choice but to concede. Before it does, it pays me with a large splinter under my nail. I hold my tears back and give it one more kick. The remaining two legs fall off and the spindles roll away from me.

To celebrate the victory, I kneel down, throw the legs away, and raise my hands. The ceiling looks at me with a certain suspicion, but I am already prepared for that. Audiences never bothered me. I open my mouth.
From deep within my throat, the parakeet’s beak comes up and settles on the tip of my tongue. I stick it out. The beak opens and lets out the beginning tones of a symphony more beautiful than the last one. He is part of me!

The light burns with a newfound intensity. The lumens, released from their glass prison, dance insanely around the room bouncing off the walls and the ceiling. On the tip of my tongue, the beak keeps opening and closing. Just then the ceiling splits open, and I burst into tears as I float on the heavenly tones up, up, up...toward the star–studded night sky, while the blood stained feathers drift back into the room.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Interview with Althea Ann

My guest today is Althea Ann, one of the top ten reviewers on Goodreads. I reached out to her via GR and she accepted my invitation to participate in this project of mine. Her reviews not only span many genres, they are also well written and honest. If you enjoy reading reviews, the link at the end of this interview will take you to 1100+


I'm a librarian/archivist who specializes in digital asset management. I do work in publishing, but as it happens, there’s zero overlap between anything I deal with professionally, and anything I might review; my reviews are purely a leisure time hobby. Besides reading, I also enjoy travel (not just the armchair variety!), seeing the world in all its variety: nature and festivals, cities and ruins, museums and beaches… amateur photography, Gothic events, good food and drink, good friends, and since moving from NYC’s east village to a place with a bit of a yard, I’ve taken up a bit of gardening…

Do you have specific genres that you review, and what is your favorite one?

I’d like to say I read anything and everything, but there are definitely themes that catch my interest. Most of what I read falls into the ‘speculative fiction’ container. In addition to the primary goal of entertainment, I like books that I feel give me a new perspective on the world – I like to see through eyes different from my own; to have new ideas introduced to me in a compelling way, and have horizons broadened. Many of my favorite books have been described as character-driven and ‘anthropological’ in focus. I’m also very interested in mythology, in stories that tap into the stories that are underlaid with the universals of human experience. I enjoy interesting settings, whether historical, far-future, or purely imaginary – I generally find contemporary realism a bit dull.

On average, how many books do you review each month?

Around 12-15.

Do you accept unsolicited review requests, or do you only review books you select yourself?

I review what I read. I have gotten a few books through Goodreads giveaways, and I have put those to the top of my to-be-read list – but I’ve only entered giveaways for books I’d be likely to want to read anyways.

Considering the recent surge of self-published books on the market, what is your experience with self-published titles?

I always want self-published titles to be good, as, on principle, I think self-publishing is a wonderful idea. But, in my experience, they rarely are. I have encountered a few self-published titles which had a lot of potential – but were still in need of a professional editor. For me, ‘brand’ does still mean something – I’m far more likely to pick up titles from certain publishers, if I’m not yet familiar with the author, and I’m likely to avoid self-published works.

As a reviewer, you have to state your honest opinions. Do you publish all reviews regardless of the rating?

Yes. My reviews are my thoughts – they’re worth no more and no less than anyone else’s thoughts. There’s no book (or any creative work) out there that will be universally loved. If creators can’t handle the fact that they aren’t going to receive universal love, and aren’t going to be handled with kid gloves, then they shouldn’t release a work to the public. Honest opinions are vitally important – and without negative opinions, positive reviews are nothing more than empty blandishments.
That said, for purely selfish reasons, I don’t go out of my way to read books that I expect will rate less than three stars (my rating for a good, average book that met my expectations). Of course, sometimes I misjudge, and am disappointed.

Is there any particular book or author that set the benchmark for you in a specific genre?

Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings and Ursula LeGuin’s Earthsea trilogy. Both are fantasy, but each takes a very different approach – and each demonstrates some of the most valuable (I would say, essential) things that fantasy can do. Both merge story with language in a synergistic way, going beyond mere tale-telling to create new mythology – something that resonates on a deeper level and can be a guidepost for living.

What was the catalyst for you to become a reviewer, and what keeps you going?

Ha! My poor memory. I have a tendency to buy multiple copies of the same book, because it looks interesting every time I come across it! I started reviewing to have a quick reference to refresh my memory, since title and contents tend to come uncoupled in my head. That was around 10 years ago now, and I’m still writing. My reviews tend to be informal, but I also like taking a bit of time upon finishing a book to mull it over and collect my thoughts. My reviews are primarily for me, but I certainly also enjoy having others read them, and perhaps starting a dialogue with other who may have had either different or similar perspectives on the same work.

In your opinion, do you find the new titles original and creatively executed, or do you see more of a repeat of the same (think Hollywood's surge in remakes)?

I don’t read all-new books – if a book is new to me, it’s new to me no matter when it was originally released. Sometimes I specifically enjoy reading older books just because they’re so illustrative of the ideas and zeitgeist of a certain time period. But I certainly think there are many brilliant and original authors currently working – Connie Willis, Guy Gavriel Kay, George R.R. Martin, Patricia McKillip, China Mieville, Tanith Lee, Kazuo Ishiguro, Kelly Link, Theodora Goss, Paolo Bacigalupi, Sarah Waters, Nicola Griffith, and many, many others. Of course there are also those where you have to say “When is a new book coming?!?!? (Maureen McHugh, Rosemary Kirstein), and those who have left us too soon (Iain Banks, Kage Baker, Octavia Butler). If you feel the books you’re reading are too derivative, you’re reading the wrong books.

Out of all the books you've read, are there any particular books or characters that stayed on your mind?

Well, of course characters get into your head – they’re like people you’ve met, and I do think about them. But I don’t go around obsessing about them – I generally finish a book, and then it’s on to the next…

What is the one review you are the most proud of, and why?

I don’t really think of reviews as something to be proud of – as I said, I tend to regard them as mainly a functional aide-memoire. But, over time I’ve amassed quite a body of them, which is something to have a bit of pride in, I guess!

I would like to thank Althea for playing along and answering my questions. You can read her reviews here: Goodreads 

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Literary Fiction in the current genre market - review difficulties

At the risk of coming across as someone who disagrees with reviewers (which is not the case), I decided to write a discussion topic pertaining to a recent experience I've had. For the record, I discussed this post with one of the reviewers in details, and shared it with her before posting it. Like me, she thought it would be a good start for a discussion.

Literary Fiction in the current genre market

The idea for this post arrived at the heels of three separate discussions I had with reviewers who recently reviewed my books. Its purpose is neither to soothe my ego, nor to disagree with the reviewers' assessments of my work but, rather, to invite an open discussion.

As you might have guessed by now, the reviewers referenced here did not receive my work with open arms. This, however, does not bother me, as I am a firm believer in honesty, and I embrace any review whether good or bad. Rather, I look at my recent experience as a learning opportunity. For all intended purpose, my subsequent discussions with the reviewers were nothing but pleasant and civil.

Part one: What had I learned?

I've learned that many reviewers are not familiar with the terms 'literary fiction' or 'literary novel'. This does not come as a surprise. Despite reading literary novels for over two decades, I can only name one review site devoted to the genre - Dactyl Review. A lot of reviewers who have their own blogs these days are fairly young and have never read authors like Hamsun, Camus, Handke, Cossery, Kafka... Having said that, the three reviewers I spoke with had no idea what literary fiction is.

Part two: What is literary fiction? 

This is a loaded question. Instead of supplying some generally accepted definition I could find on Google, I'll present my own interpretation: Literary fiction or a literary novel is a written work where the protagonist's state of mind and resulting actions take precedence over the plot itself. I realize that this definition may not suit everyone, and I'm open to a discussion on this.
My second criteria would be that the book is as true to life as possible.

For me, literary novels are packed with emotions and real human experiences. The protagonists are not always likeable, the villains are not always bad, but we experience the world through their eyes and thoughts, which, in turn, teaches us something about our world. Such is life.

Part Three: The Critique.

All three reviewers mentioned that my protagonist was "an unreliable narrator". Upon further exploration, I had learned that this meant my protagonist did not contain his narrative to the main plot line only but rambled and spoke off topic, and that his point-of-view was compromised with internal monologue.
One other issue mentioned was that some instances and events in the novel were not very much fiction-like, because there were random actions too true to life.

Writing in a first-person narrative is not an easy task. Actually, writing is not an easy task no matter what narrative the author decides upon. For me, in this particular story, there are two simultaneous narratives: One of the plot relayed through the protagonist's sensory receptions, and one of the protagonist's internal monologue - his mental state. A character driven to the edge of sanity by his ordeal reflects upon his inner thoughts in random, while not leaving the plot. My protagonist, by all means, fits the preceding sentence. He has dreams, nightmares, opinions. He reflects, he desires, he muses. But he continues to narrate the story all the while. In my humble attempt to delve into the human psyche, I selected a scenario and a character that work well together. From the onset, the protagonist shows signs of paranoia. After his ordeal (the plot thickens), he has to deal with a lot more than he can handle; thus he retreats to his safety zone, his mind.

On the subject of being too true to life, I was told that there were instances when the reader expected something different to happen. In an example, the protagonist reaches out to a former boyfriend and ask for help. The boyfriend ignores the request and the protagonist, not having any other choice, goes back to his ordeal. A reviewer expected the boyfriend to make things happen, to come for the protagonist. After all, the reviewer has read many fictional books where this would be the norm. Shall I call it a happy Hollywood ending?

In realistic fiction, however, this does not happen often. Sure there are instances where a happy ending is warranted. There are instances when magic and miracles truly happen. Nevertheless, these instances are rare, and life as we know it is not as easy as a happily-ever-after story. When I was writing this particular novel, I wanted to explore the limits of human endurance, of human spirit. After all, the blurb states: "This is a story of humanity's worst nemesis - itself." With a description like that, there has to be drama.

For me, it was important to write a realistic book with realistic characters. It's a slice of life, albeit not everyone's life and certainly not everyday life. If it comes across as "too real", then I'm happy.


Overall, this entire experience has been very pleasant. When I set out to find out more about what the reviewers meant, I had no idea that we would engage on the level we did. I had no idea that a week later we would be sending emails back and forth, talking about styles, literature, writers, and yes, even exchanging cooking recipes. I had learned some things I was unaware of, and the reviewers had learned a bit more about different literary styles.

I had not asked any of the reviewers to reconsider their reviews, nor do I plan to do that. Their opinions are what they are, or were when they reviewed my work, and I respect that. It was never my intention to challenge or discredit those opinions.

So what is the purpose of this post?

A discussion. Hopefully this topic resonates with someone who reads this, be it a reviewer or an author. If you write Literary Fiction, have you encountered similar issues? If you reviewed literary fiction and did not know what you were getting into, what was your experience?

If you decide to engage in a conversation about this, it should remain civil. There will be no author or reviewer bashing here, no name calling, and no personal attacks.

Please keep in mind that when it comes to reviewing, there are no wrong opinions. Tastes and interpretations vary greatly among readers, and everyone is entitled to their own opinion.

I would appreciate to learn your take on this. If you have something to add, if you agree or disagree with something I have said, or if you just want your opinion to be heard, please comment here. 

For all intended purposes, the discussion has moved here:

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Authors to Watch: Interview with Henry Martin

Authors to Watch: Interview with Henry Martin: Today, we're visiting with Henry Martin, author of Mad Days of Me series, including Escaping Barcelona ... Trapped in the stree...

Interview with Florence Osmund

My guest today is the amazing Florence Osmund, who, aside from being an exceptional author, devotes her free time to offering advice to aspiring authors. She is also very active in the literary community.

After more than three decades of working in corporate America, I retired to write books. I earned my master’s degree from Lake Forest Graduate School of Management and built a career in administrative management that culminated with a senior management position in a major insurance company. I currently reside in Chicago where I am enjoying all the things this great city has to offer, and (of course) reading and writing.

I devote my website primarily to new and inspiring writers where I offer substantial advice on writing techniques, the pros and cons of self-publishing, getting started, how to avoid scams, and promoting and marketing your book. Itʾs advice I wish I had received before I started writing my first book, and itʾs all free. Please visit

Do you have specific genres that you review, and what is your favorite one? 

    My favorite genre is literary fiction, but I will also review young adult fiction, dramas, mysteries, and womenʾs fiction.

On average, how many books do you review each month?

    I average about one book a month, sometimes more depending on what else I have on my plate     at the time.

Do you accept unsolicited review requests, or do you only review books you select yourself? 

    Occasionally, as a favor I will review a book for a fellow author if asked. However, the vast majority of books I review are for indieBRAG, a privately held organization that has brought together a large group of readers, both individuals and members of book clubs, located throughout the United States, Canada, and Europe. Book Readers Appreciation Group recognizes self-published authors by reviewing their books and judging each oneʾs merits based on a proprietary list of criteria, the single most important one being whether three out of three of their reviewers would recommend the book to his/her best friend. Less than 15% of the books submitted receive this honor. When Iʾm ready to review another indieBRAG book, I am given a short list from which to choose.

Considering the recent surge of self-published books on the market, what is your experience with self-published titles?

    Unfortunately, I see an alarming number of self-published books that have not been professionally edited or proofread. It doesnʾt matter how skilled a storyteller you are, if your book violates standard writing rules, or worse yet, contains grammar, spelling, and punctuation errors, it will not be very marketable. Based on an obvious lack of professional editing, more than 30% of submissions to IndieBRAG are rejected before they even reach a reviewer.

    Professional editing is expensive. The cost to have an 80,000-word manuscript professionally edited (content, line, and copy edited) is a minimum of $2,500. Not everyone can afford that, especially if itʾs their first book and they havenʾt realized any revenue yet. Itʾs a frustrating situation to be in—you have this compelling story to tell, but you donʾt have the upfront money to make it marketable. This, of course, is one of the disadvantages of self-publishing—you have to front all the expenses.

As a reviewer, you have to state your honest opinions. Do you publish all reviews regardless of the rating?

    If a book has at least some redeeming qualities, I will publish the review on both Amazon and Goodreads. I always begin with what I thought to be favorable about the book, and then I talk about what I found lacking. My experience has been as long as I state the criticism constructively, the authors appreciate the feedback, even if itʾs negative.

Is there any particular book or author that sets the benchmark for you in a specific genre?

    I really admire the way Dennis Lehane crafts a story. The one that stands out for me is Mystic River in which he does a remarkable job developing a unique cast of characters. The way he unfurls the plot is genius, and his ability to evoke a wide array of emotions from his readers (at least this reader) is powerful.

What was the catalyst for you to become a reviewer, and what keeps you going?
    If you visited my website, you know one of my goals is to help new authors, especially self-published ones. Being a reviewer for indieBRAG helps me achieve that goal.

In your opinion, do you find the new titles original and creatively executed, or do you see more of a repeat of the same (think Hollywood's surge in remakes)?

    I see significant creativity and originality in the books I review, especially from authors who dare to be different. But I also believe a truly talented author can take an old concept, reshape it so to speak, and still produce a compelling story.

Out of all the books you've read, are there any particular books or characters that stayed on your mind?

    Searching for Lincolnʾs Ghost, is a book I reviewed last year for self-published author Barbara Dzikowsky. Itʾs the story of a young girl who is faced with adult social and philosophical issues that many grown-ups would have difficulty managing, and it is her innocence and unrelenting drive to understand things that help her get through them. This heartwarming coming-of-age story, expertly crafted by Dzikowsky, will stay with me a long time.

What is the one review you are the most proud of, and why? 

    One of my Amazon reviews includes strong criticism of the bookʾs lack of any meaningful action in the first half, causing the story to get off to an incredibly slow start. The author publicly responded by thanking me for taking the time to provide an honest opinion and for including what I felt she did well instead of merely focusing on the negative.

You can find more about Florence Osmund by visiting her website:
Or visit her Amazon page to learn more about here amazing titles: Amazon  
Also visit indieBRAG to learn more about what they do. It's a great organization: indieBRAG

Please show your support for my quest by visiting their links and leaving a comment. 
If you would like to see someone featured here, drop me a line.