Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Move Over, Goodreads! Time for Better Indie Book Reads

I don't know about you, but I've come to the point where I think Goodreads has done a great disservice to readers and authors. Why? Book reviews aren't based on the reality and quality of the books we share. They're highly politicized, market-driven, and sometimes blatantly unfair, both to readers and authors. It's time for Better Indie Book Reads certified reviews.

When I worked as a librarian, I trained in information science and media studies. I read thousands of book reviews a year. Thousands. I trolled for the very best books I could find to put on the shelves of a public library. I always sought reputable opinions from reviewers who disclosed their experience and expertise in book selection. Some were fellow librarians, having face-to-face contact with patrons in search of specific titles, genres, and book categories. Some were book sellers, who were armed with the knowledge of what was available in print for customers, what customers, enjoyed, and what customers seemed disappointed in. Some were voracious readers, who devoured books like they were potato chips -- those people could tell you what was currently available, what the similar choices were, and whether or not it was likely to be enjoyed by readers of a similar mindset.

In other words, I didn't just want to fill the library with books I thought were good. I didn't go out to a bookshop and peruse the latest and greatest, hoping I would stumble upon books people liked. I did the research. I turned to reviewers with bona fide credentials. I got to know who they were, what their affiliation with books was, and I was able to have some confidence that the books they recommended were going to be solid choices.

Currently, Goodreads is in the midst of some very unpleasant activity. Authors and reviewers are being cited for "bad behavior", disagreements abound, and no one seems particularly happy with the status quo. I know I'm not. There are screams of censorship, accusations of unsavory business practices, and a weak call for making nice-nice. Only one problem. Goodreads and its policies are the reason these issues are front and center. Goodreads is its own worst enemy, creating more harm than good with its open, free-for-all, everything-and-anything-goes, Wild West attitude. It's uncivilized, unappreciated, and unfair, both to readers and to authors.

How many readers out there would love to see a standardized review system, without all the marketing, the gimmicks, the fake reviews? I know I would. I'd like to see ebooks undergo the same kind of civilized review protocols that I used when I selected traditional books. It would narrow down the massive frontier of indie books to a more manageable size, weaning out the poor choices for those little gems that are lost in the shuffle. With so many indies out there, and so many social media people hawking marketing services, the opportunity to find good, decent, well-written books is lost. The loudest, biggest, gaudiest marketing campaign takes center stage and the book that's being sold isn't necessarily worth reading. How do we bring sense and sensibility the world of indie book sales? First, we have to avoid the ugly minefield that has cropped up between authors who want to sell and readers who want to read.

Let's say an author has a new book, fresh out of the shoot, and a review is posted on Goodreads by someone who earns a living editing books. In the review, the reviewer cites errors in the book. The list is lengthy and even petty in its criticism. But the errors cited by the reviewer are not factually correct. What is the result? Readers won't bother reading the book because they have accepted the reviewer's credentials as genuine, and therefore, assume the thumbs-down must be legitimate.

What if the same reviewer that has misrepresented the work then wants to recommend a paid editorial service to the author, to "improve" the story? Sounds nice, right?

Only one problem. It's a conflict of interest to write a negative review of a book when you are also recommending paid services of a third party. That is, by FTC regulations, a no-no. If a reviewer/blogger is by law required to disclose that the book being reviewed was provided for free and fails to do so, the penalty is a fine of up to $11,000. That same rule can be applied to a reviewer who deliberately misrepresents a book's contents in order to sell services through a personal recommendation.

Think about the potential for harm, not just to an author's reputation, but to the book, when a book reviewer has an interest in driving traffic to a third party selling publishing services. Let's say that on the particular reviewer's personal website, the recommended editorial service appears, but this is not disclosed in the posted Goodreads review. By misrepresenting the book and deterring readers from enjoying it, the reviewer has now created a negative situation for the author, all in the hopes of forcing the author to hire a paid editing service. This is considered extortion by legal definition. How then can any reader trust that review? It is, by its very nature, a tainted review, designed to sell books, not good reading material.

What happens when the author doesn't accept the suggested editorial services? More bad reviews get posted by accomplices in the dirty little scheme. It's enough to drive an author into the waiting (and collaborating) arms of a welcoming editor, isn't it? And suddenly, miracle of miracles, the author accepts the editing advice and the positive reviews pour in! In case you're unfamiliar with this social marketing tactic, it's called a scam.

So, how do we, industry-wide and as indie authors and readers, improve the way book reviews are done? That's where my vision of the Better Indie Book Reads certified review system comes in. Before a book review can be posted, the reviewer must share credentials and qualifications for posting the review. Once a review is publicly posted, the reviewer is accountable for the information in the review. An opinion is still an opinion, and folks can disagree, but information on what appears inside the book must be factual and fair.

A book rating is not a book review, and while ratings do, in fact, have merit, we should never mistake them for reviews. A rating is like the popular vote. Anyone can speak up, but we weigh the value of the rating by the rater's personal expertise. Ratings are qualified votes. The number of stars awarded reflect a reader's taste in a book. Did it please? Did it not please? Book recommendations by readers for Better Indie Book Reads are a great way to identify potential books for certified review. Did it grab you in the first ten pages? What stood out for you in a particular indie book? Pass it along as having potential. Let it go up the chain to the next group of readers. Do they agree this passes the test of the Better Indie Book Reads?

Let's say that a reader stumbles upon an indie book and shares it because the writing style is good, the content is worthy, the subject matter is interesting. Let the indie book go to the next level of the review process. Get feedback from ten or twenty seasoned readers of the category or genre. If you've got a romance novel, you don't want a thriller fan to waste time reading it. You want hardcore, die hard fans of romances to read that book, because those readers will be able to compare the book to what's out there and tell you whether it belongs in the review pile. Match the book to the reader and you get a better read.

Once you have that second round of readers coming to a consensus on books they recommend, pass it up to the book reviewer with the credentials to review it. If it passes his or her test of what a good book in that category or genre is, the book can be certified for Better Indie Book Reads members.

Why use this kind of system to weed out books of poor quality? Or books that need tweaking? Or books that aren't ready for prime time? Because it's fair. Regular readers will offer their views on the popularity potential of a book. After all, we want to give passionate readers a rewarding experience, and that requires their input in the general process. Seasoned readers, who have a more critical eye fulfill an important role in weeding out those books that please, but could be better. Maybe there are issues with grammar, formatting, or even characterizations, but seasoned readers enjoyed the body of the work. Kick it back to the author with a note -- "Gee, we really wish you could tidy this up, because it could really be a Better Indie Book Read...."

In this sense, the Better Indie Book Reads concept would fill the role once honed by traditional book publishers. The dreaded slush pile of editorial interns becomes the domain of readers who don't mind taking a glance at ten pages of a book that has promise. If they get to page 15 and they're still interested, they can pass it up the chain of Better Indie Book Reads. If we use seasoned readers as the junior editors, those folks who tend to nurture authors who demonstrate potential, they would have the opportunity to make some notes and share their thoughts on improving indie books without publicly flogging promising writers. (Authors actually do often welcome genuine criticisms. I know that I have gotten great insight from a variety of readers. I listen to them because they are the consumers of my book.) And as for the actual credentialed reviewers -- that's the creme de la creme for the Better Indie Book Reads. We need them to separate the wheat from the chaff.

What is the benefit from this system of certified reviews? It will tell the public that each particular book has been vetted by a group of readers who genuinely have no personal stake in promoting it. These books have been selected on merit, not marketing, without any conflict of interest. They're better indie books selected from an overcrowded field of self-published works.

Got an opinion of ways we can improve indie book reviews? Please share it. Let's tame this wild, crazy, shark-infested feeding frenzy of an ocean filled with too many books and make sense of what we read.

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