2016 Anthology Workshop

It’s been over two weeks since I got back from the Anthology Workshop. I meant to do a write-up about it before this, but I caught some kind of crud on the flight home (best as I can tell, looking at the likely incubation period) and I’ve only just gotten over the hacking and sniffling. I hate trying to sleep when my sinuses are clogged up; I think the sleep deprivation is worse than the actual hacking and sniffling. πŸ˜›

Anyway. Great workshop as always. I only sold one story (an SF mystery to John Helfers for an anthology called No Humans Allowed,) but I had a great time anyway, and learned a lot. I had a chance to talk to a bunch of folks, get to know some new people and some people who’ve been around, but we just never had a chance to really sit down and chat before.

The whiteboard John built his TOC on. My story’s on the right, in darker marker; it was a “Hold” at first, and he decided to add it at the end, when he was filling in stories to make his wordcount.

We wrote stories ahead of time, as always. About 45 attendees wrote about 250 stories, totalling 1.1 million words of fiction. The reading was like a tidal wave, seriously. We’re supposed to be learning to read like editors — who definitely do not read every word of every story that’s submitted — but it’s hard when you’re dealing with quality this high. If this were open-submission slush, most stories could be rejected after a paragraph of two. That’s not the case here. This is a pro-level, invite-only workshop, and people who attend are ridiculously good at this stuff.

Six of the editors — John Helfers, Kerrie Hughes, Kris Rusch, Mark Leslie (aka Mark the Kobo Guy), Kevin Anderson and Rebecca Moesta — had established books they were reading for. We got guidelines for one book per week we were writing, and had a week (or a bit less) to write a story in accordance with the guidelines and get it in. Dean Smith was the odd guy out this year; he read all the stories and had to put together an anthology out of the ones the six other editors didn’t choose, coming up with a set of stories that created some kind of theme as he went. He ended up with a bunch of stories on the theme of Hard Choices, and he had to fight a few of the other editors for some of those stories.

It was fun to watch. πŸ™‚ If the editor for whom a story was specifically written doesn’t want it, any other editor who thinks it’d fit their book really well can steal it. All the editors with established books had dibs over poor Dean, who often found himself wanting a story, but standing in line behind two or even three other people. By the time he put his TOC together on the last day, he say the process had been a lot harder than he’d expected. I definitely wouldn’t want to have to do it, although watching him do it was educational.

Most of the workshop was spent watching and listening as the editors went through the stories one by one, evaluating, disagreeing, arguing. There were a lot of WTF?? expressions scattered through the week as one or more editors loved a story that one or more other editors hated. Discussion got pretty heated once or twice. In the middle of all of this, Kris reminded us that this was because the stories were all very good. If this were a beginner workshop, where all or most of the attendees were still learning how to write, the editors would all agree. Obvious flaws would stick out to everyone. In this group, everyone can write, so the disagreements and arguments were all a matter of individual editors’ taste. Even the common disagreements that sounded like craft issues — like Kris and Dean insisting that a lot of stories had “no setting” (since they’re both really aware of setting) while John and Kerrie often loved those stories and thought they had just the right amount of setting, or that the characters and plot were so interesting they hadn’t noticed or didn’t care that there wasn’t much setting — were really matters of taste. There are readers like Kris and Dean, and there are readers like John and Kerrie.

And that’s the point. Just because one editor, or even five editors, rejects your story, that doesn’t mean it sucks. It might just mean it wasn’t to that editor’s (or those editors’) taste. Keep trying. Some of my stories that didn’t sell would’ve sold to one of the other editors if they’d been editing that particular volume. Which is the point. Keep going. Too many writers get a rejection or three, decide the story sucks and stop sending it out. Don’t do that!

As we’ve done before, we had sign-up lunches in small groups with most of the editors, and a few other subject matter experts, like Christy Fifield, who writes fun cozy mysteries, and is a hotel Controller in her day job; she’s a great source of info for finance and accounting and such. We also had an audio expert, and someone who writes comics for major publishers, for folks who are interested in that. I went out with John, Dean and Christy, and had a great time with each of them, and the other writers who signed up to go with.

Other days we grabbed lunch with whoever was available, and there’s plenty of talent in the room and lots of brains to pick. Dinner was also chaotic in a fun way, and I hung with a lot of different people at various times. Sometimes it’s fun sticking with a few friends — I usually do that at SF conventions, that sort of thing — but at this kind of event, the more people you can hang out with and get to know, the better. The networking at these events is worth the workshop fee all by itself.

Allyson, the Publisher at WMG, announced that they’re starting up a companion line of anthologies called Fiction River Presents. These will be reprints of stories that’ve already been in Fiction River, remixed in various ways. Fiction River is starting its fourth year now, and a lot of people only heard about it recently. Doing the reprint volumes is a good way of giving folks different mixes of stories, so if one theme from the past didn’t appeal to you, maybe another will and you’ll see some stories you’d have otherwise missed.

From the WMG site: “Appropriately, the first volume, Debut Writers’ Showcase, commemorates first sales by up-and-coming authors. Future volumes will revolve around themes such as family, thrillers, offbeat stories, and Readers’ Choice.”

My first professional sale was “Staying Afloat” in How to Save the World, and that story will be in the Showcase volume.

Othere random bits I noted down during the workshop:

Short fiction is an entryway to your work for people who’ve never read any of your other stuff.

Anthologies are an exception to BookBub’s one-book-per-author-at-any-one-time rule. you can only have one novel up at a time, but you can have multiple multi-author anthologies, or a novel and an anthology, or whatever combination.

If you’re looking to build up your sales ranking on sites like Amazon, advertise sales on multiple sites in succession rather than all at once. Start with BookBub and then go through others week by week. BookBub will raise your book up the ranks, and the smaller lists will keep it up there.

A workshop attendee who writes romances puts out a new short story each month. He makes it free on his blog for a week, with a buy button on the page. He sells a few during the free week, then when the story comes off of free, sales shoot up. He sells the e-books for $2.99 and paperbacks for $5.99, and he gets bookstore/warehouse sales; he sees batches of 10-15 of the paperbacks selling. He does this once a month, and now makes a third of his income off of short fiction this way.

“Free” is the most popular search term on Kobo, always, no matter what else is going on or what hot book’s been released.

Writers are generally pretty awful at writing our author bios. I’ll admit I hate doing it, and the standard one I use isn’t great. An author bio should talk about your writing. It doesn’t matter that you have five cats unless there are cats prominently in your work. It doesn’t matter that you like to garden or knit unless your characters are gardening, or some detail about historical knitting is a plot point in your story. What do you write? What have you published? Have you won any awards? Or been nominated? Made any significant bestseller lists? When writing your author bio, remember — not too long, not too short, not too modest. Most of us seem to have a problem with that last bit. πŸ˜›

If your story is set during a big, horrific event, it’s hard to get your readers to hang on to it. If you deal with it head-on, it’s better to deal with a smaller part and make it representative of the larger events, with a close emotional grab. Trying to deal with the whole, sweeping thing will probably require a lot of tell-tell-tell narrative, which can get boring. Keep the reader down IN the events, focused on a representative character. Also, use little details, like in the middle of a huge event that’s caused shootings or protests or whatever, there are going to be closed streets. Have your characters deal with that, to make the larger events have an impact on their lives in a given moment.

Make your manuscript readable. Small fonts are bad. Courier is iffy.

Make sure your name and the page number are in the header of every page, because some editors still print things out to read. If they drop a stack of pages, or they go for coffee and the printer spits the pages for a dozen stories all over the floor, the editor’s not going to bother to play literary archaeologist to figure out which pages belong to your story and what order they go in.

Give your story a significant file name. Some markets call out file name formats, in which case follow that. But if a market doesn’t specify, don’t call it “Story.doc” or “Fantasy.doc” or whatever.

Story titles should be memorable. On the one hand, that means that calling something “Aftermath” or “The Game” or “Conflict” probably isn’t a great idea because that kind of title doesn’t call a particular story to mind. On the other hand, words and names in your title should be reasonably familiar and pronounceable. You want readers to be able to talk about your story to their friends, and editors to be able to remember your title when thinking about their up-coming book or issue, or when talking with their staff. They can’t do that if they can’t remember or pronounce your alien name, or your transliterated Arabic phrase. Put the linguistic fireworks in the story, not in the title.

First person can be very distancing because the reader is NOT the person doing whatever

There’s a convention of a type of mystery fiction by people who don’t know police procedure perfectly and that’s fine. You’re just aiming for a different audience of readers than the folks who are experts on procedure and make that a major focus of the narrative.

Put something in the body of the e-mail when you sub a story, or even just edits. Blank e-mails with just an attachment end up in the spam filter. Also, you’re trying to foster a relationship with the editor, so say hi, looking forward to working with you, something. Not a Christmas letter, but a line or two.

If a published story gets picked up for a reprint, gets into a Year’s Best, nominated for an award, whatever, let the original editor know. They might want to use it in their marketing, and even if they don’t, it’s a fuzzy to them too, just to hear about it.

If you’re writing about one of a series of events, what’s special about this occurrence, this character? Why are you writing about this particular one and not the previous one, or the next one, or the first one? Let the reader know why this person/thing/occurrence has a story written about it.

We were talking in the workshop about the layoffs at Random Penguin, which happened while we were there. Someone there who knows people at PRH said that Nora Roberts’s editor was one of the people layed off, which… seriously? How could anyone with more than two brain cells to rub together for mutual warmth argue that that particular editor wasn’t pulling in enough money for the business to justify their salary?? o_O So when word came out about a week later that Ms. Roberts had taken a hike up the road to St. Martins, I wasn’t at all surprised. That was a ridiculously expensive round of layoffs for Random Penguin; I’m sure someone was called to explain WTF they were thinking, or will be when the company start to feel the lack of Ms. Roberts’s sales in their bottom line.

We had a funny thing happen on the way home. I rode back to Portland with Lyn, who was driving, and Laura. We stopped at Laura’s hotel to drop her off, and ran into Brenda in the parking lot. Brenda had dropped Michele off at the airport and decided, spur of the moment, to stay at that hotel herself. Lyn had planned to drive farther before stopping, but with two other writers from the workshop there, she decided what the heck, that she’d stay there too, so she ran in to get a room. I think she and Laura ended up sharing. I had a room at another hotel a couple miles away, and was having dinner there that night with a writer friend who lives in Portland. Under other circumstances, though, it would’ve been pretty awesome to have one more “workshop” night at the hotel. Or better yet, if they’d all been in mine — it’s the hotel I always stay at when I’m flying out of Portland, and my husband got a great deal on a suite. I had a for-real suite, with a main room and a separate bedroom, and my main room had a full size dining table and six chairs. We could’ve stayed up for hours gabbing. πŸ™‚ Maybe next year.

I had a great conversation with Amelia, and a decent flight home the next morning. I came down with the creeping crud a couple of days later, but the trip itself went wonderfully well. I’m already signed up for next year, and there’s still space. If you write short fiction, the Anthology Workshop is an awesome experience, and one I can’t recommend strongly enough.

Thanks to Dean and Allyson for organizing the event, all the editors for helping make it happen, and all the attendees for making it rock. So long as they keep throwing these workshops, I’ll keep going.

Angie

Cover Design

Chip Kidd has been doing book cover design for Knopf for about twenty-five years, and has done some awesome work. He discusses it, with illustrations, in this TED talk, which is well worth a watch, whether you do your own covers or hire other people to do them for you. Knowing what a good cover looks like, and what the possibilities are, is massively helpful when it’s time to decide whether or not the person you’re paying is doing a good job for you.

Note that Mr. Kidd has the unfortunately common Major Attitude toward e-books. [sigh] I wish people would just get over the whole, “But-but-but the smell of a book!!!” thing already. πŸ˜› As someone who prefers paper books, it’s embarassing how some folks who (unfortunately) share my preference get all sneering and snarky about it. Dude, it’s a format. You’re allowed to prefer whichever one you like. No reason to insult the other format, and by extension, all the customers who like it. I mean, seriously, do these people really think that if they just slather on the snark thick enough, often enough, the rest of the world will eventually smack its collective forehead and exclaim, “Wow, you’re right! This whole e-book thing was a horrible idea! Let’s just stop making them and go back to good old (smelly) paper!”

That one annoying quirk aside, Mr. Kidd is a incredibly talented designer. If you have anything to do with making book covers, whether putting them together yourself, or approving and paying for the work of others, give this a watch.

Angie

Workshop Stuff

I went kind of radio silent for a few weeks there — sorry about that. I have things to post about, but I’m not going to dump it all at once. First is the Anthology Workshop I went to from late February through the first week in March. Great stuff as always. Anyone who has any interest in writing short fiction should try to get into one of these workshops some year. I think the 2016 Anthology Workshop still has space, or at least it’s not marked as full yet. Click through and scroll down.

For anyone going “Huh?” right now, the Anthology Workshop is an intense week-and-a-bit on the Oregon coast with about forty writers and half a dozen editors. We get six anthology assignments ahead of time — submission guidelines, like you’d see for any anthology — starting right after the first of the year. Each assignment has a deadline a week away, and then we get the next one, boom-boom-boom, six stories due on six successive Sundays. You’re not required to write for every book — you can pick the ones you want — but why wouldn’t you? This is a great opportunity to submit work and then listen to a bunch of editors arguing over your stories. Oh, and possibly make some sales to Fiction River, as a nice bonus to eight days of learning.

Most of the workshop days are devoted to going over stories, one book’s worth per day. They start at one end of the row of editors at the front of the room, and each editor says whether they’d have bought the story or not, and why or why not. The last editor is the one (or occasionally a pair, editing a book as a team) who’s actually buying stories for the live anthology. There’s a white board for each book, where BUY and MAYBE stories are listed, along with author and wordcount. Sometimes all the editors agree one way or the other, but usually not. The discussions back and forth between editors of differing opinions can be entertaining, and are always educational. That’s really what it’s all about — seeing how and why different professional editors can and do disagree over a story, occasionally with snark or sarcasm involved. When we’re done with all the stories, the editor(s) look at how many BUY stories they have, and if there isn’t enough wordcount, they go through the MAYBE stories to finish building the TOC. Watching them do this is another great educational opportunity.

So each day, the editors go over one book’s worth of stories. I always write for all the books, and so do a lot of the other attendees. Before this year, if a story was passed up, we were encouraged to sub it to some other pro market right away, but this time we were told not to. Good thing, too.

The six books we wrote for were, in scheduled publication order:

Hidden in Crime, edited by Kristine Kathryn Rusch, a historical crime volume
Visions of the Apocalypse, edited by John Helfers, a book of stories taking place during (not just before or after) the end of the world
Last Stand, edited by Dean Wesley Smith and Felicia Fredlund, stories about characters making a final stand, and no, it’s not all they-died-in-the-end stories πŸ™‚
Superpowers, edited by Rebecca Moesta, a YA anthology about teenagers learning to cope with some kind of super power
Haunted, edited by Kerrie Hughes, an anthology of haunting stories
Pulse Pounders: Adrenaline, edited by Kevin J. Anderson, a book of short thrillers

Click through and scroll down a bit to see the up-coming anthology covers. Last I heard, they’re planning to find new art for the Last Stand book, but the others are pretty set except for names on the covers.

I initially sold a story to Haunted, which is cool; I’ve worked with Kerrie before and am looking forward to working with her again. I missed with John’s Apocalypse book, which was disappointing; I’ve sold stories to him the last two years, but this time I didn’t quite hit what he was looking for. Dean hated my story for Last Stand, but Felicia liked it a lot. I honestly wasn’t expecting to make it in there, but after going over all the stories, they did some horse trading between themselves and Dean got one he wanted that Felicia hadn’t really cared for, and Felicia got mine. πŸ™‚ Kris teetered a bit on mine, but it didn’t quite make it, which was disappointing, but I’ve never sold her anything before, so I was almost expecting it. Then on the last workshop day, she announced that someone not in the workshop who’d been invited to submit to the book, and who’d wanted a 10K word space saved for them, couldn’t submit something after all, leaving Kris with a 10K word hole. She bought two extra stories after all, one of them mine, woot!

Now this year, there was an extra person sitting up front with the editors. Mark Leslie Lefebvre, AKA Mark the Kobo guy, was a student in the workshop last year. He stepped in and offered some Kobo support when a couple of editors had more stories they Really Really Wanted to buy, but which they didn’t have room/budget for. Two of last year’s volumes have special Kobo editions with three more stories in them, which is awesome, so thanks to Mark for that. But this year, Mark was sitting up front. Huh?

Okay, there had to be a reason. Last year, there was some talk about how, if the special Kobo editions were a success and sold well, they might do special editions of all the books this year. But as days went by, they weren’t buying extra stories, and there was no mention of a Kobo edition. Huh. But there was Mark up there, doing the Yes-Maybe-No thing with all the stories. My guess was that he was doing a stealth book, his own anthology, and I was right. πŸ™‚ They went through all the stories that Mark or one (or more) of the other editors had loved, but either didn’t have room in their book, or it was a story for someone else’s book that didn’t get bought. We had a whiteboard for each book (Dean and company screwed each day’s board up onto the wall somewhere in the room after that day’s workshop was over) and then Mark had a couple more where he assembled his picks, plus all the unbought picks from the other editors. Hashmarks showed which stories had a lot of love from the editors, even if the one it was written for didn’t buy it. That last round of TOC building was great, especially for the folks who got last minute surprise buys.

There’s some great stuff in there, stories I’d have bought if I’d been one of the editors. The book’s not on the Fiction River site, but they were calling it Editors’ Cut at the workshop. Fiction River doesn’t always stick to just one genre in each volume, but Mark’s book will have more variety than usual. Should be great for anyone who just loves short fiction.

Like last year, we had sign-ups to eat lunch with the editors and Allyson (the publisher of WMG), and I went out with a few people. And there were great discussions in, around, and after workshop sessions. Some notes:

If you love a trope that nobody’s writing anymore, other people will love it too, so write it to fill that hole. This is especially an opportunity for folks indie publishing — don’t let New York tell you Horror is dead, or Westerns, or romantic vampires, or kids finding weird objects while playing, or whatever you’re into.

Past a certain level of craftsmanship, whether a story sells or not isn’t really about quality, it’s about taste. Don’t let a rejection, or a bunch of rejections, discourage you. If you’re pretty sure a story is well written, keep subbing it, or indie publish it.

If you’re doing a punch story, a short story with a quick hit at the end, do a double-punch — two hits in quick succession — to make it even more powerful.

When you’re writing for submission, readability is key. No 10pt fonts, no weird fonts, don’t try to be “special.” Try to be readable. If the editor notices your formatting, you blew it.

Define what “success” means to you before you plan a promo campaign. You have to know what you want so you can tell if your campaign was successful and worth the resources you put into it.

80% of people who download a free book won’t read it.

You need at least 3-5 books in a series for perma-free on the first book to be of any benefit. (And there’s some disagreement about whether perma-free is ever a good idea. Temporary free promotions might be better.)

Amazon categories — use Fiction, General and Fiction, [Genre] as your two categories. Then your keywords will get you into other categories under those. There are a bazillion categories under Fiction, General that you can only get in through Fiction, General plus keywords

When you sub to a literary market, don’t label the story by genre in your cover letter, and don’t note genre credits. For literary markets, no previous credits are better than genre credits.

Never use the term “self-published” — use small press, independently published, etc. The stigma is still there, so don’t get it on you.

A good title will sell a story before you’ve even written it (in tradpub). It’ll also sell a story to readers.

Stories about the everyday tragedies of human life need to rise above the everyday tragedies of human life. They’re realistic, but a reader needs more of a reason to read about that particular one. Usually it’s not something anyone outside the main character’s family and friends would care about. [Writer]’s story worked because their character was heroic and had a humorous thread in their voice about what was going on with them. Also, you need to balance the tragic event with being an entertainer. The reader has to want to read that story — they’ll want to read it because it’s entertaining. What about the story and the characters makes the reader want to hang with them, especially since most people aren’t keen to spend time with their own family and friends who are horribly sick, or whatever, much less a stranger?

To transcend the horrible mundanity, maybe the character does something different, something heroic. Or the story could have an awesome voice.

If you’re editing an anthology, or putting together a collection of your own short work, the gut-wrenchingly emotional story should be at the end, or maybe in the middle, but most definitely not right up in the beginning.

When building your TOC, figure about 1/3 of readers will read the book front to back, in order.

Don’t start a story with the character’s first and last name — nametag opening. It has to be up front quick, but not the first two words.

Kris’s technique for analyzing someone else’s book/story — Take a book you never want to read again, underline setting words with a different color for each sense. Then go through and color each word for how it supports the story, setting or character or plot. The idea is to load the technique into your head so it filters to your subconscious and five stories [of your own] later you’ll start using it when you write. It’s not deliberate; it comes out of the subconscious as you write.

Dean’s technique — Take a book and type the opening in your manuscript format to get the feel for what the writer was doing word-by-word. You’ll start realizing what the writer is doing and how they do it.

Whenever you get comments about too many details, it’s always the writer putting the setting details in (the writer’s narrative voice) rather than filtering it all through the POV character’s opinion. Everything should be filtered through the character, which makes the words build character as well as setting. If you feed setting in through the POV character, readers won’t notice all the setting coming in; it reads very quickly.

If anyone notices your setting in the beginning, you fucked up.

Don’t use a series name in the title of a story in an anthology because too many people will see that it’s a series story and skip it.

Stories are circles, and the end has to reflect back on the beginning. If an ending isn’t working, it’s probably because there’s a problem with the beginning, or because the ending doesn’t reflect on the beginning.

On a crime story being resolved — the reader needs to know who committed the crime and that the story is over. A mystery/crime story puts order onto chaos. If the story is noir, the reader needs to know that order will never be imposed on the chaos. If it’s not a mystery per se, they might not catch the crook, but in any case the reader needs to have that info.

This isn’t everything, but it’s most of what I had in my Notes file on my laptop. This is an awesome workshop, and I’d be taking it even if I never sold anything. In fact, the first time I went, the anthologies weren’t “live,” and nobody sold anything; we were all there for the learning. This is a wonderful experience, and I highly recommend it to anyone with any interest in publishing short fiction.

Angie

Great Kickstarter Advice

A band called the Doubleclicks ran a ridiculously successful Kickstarter campaign in February (over $80K funded of an $18K goal) and wrote up a great — if long, but long is good for this sort of thing — article on how to do it. Good stuff, go read it. Thanks to John Scalzi for the link.

One thing I’ve always wondered about was the stretch goal thing. You know, how we’re asking for $20K, but if we reach $25K we’ll send everyone who backs us a free T-shirt or something? So you’ve basically got $5K to spend on T-shirts. That sounds like a lot, but what if you have a lot of people each making small contributions, rather than a smaller number of people each giving more? That’s the same amount of money but more shirts owed. What about postage? What about packaging? What if you actually take in $100K, which sounds awesome but if that’s another 10K people you have to send T-shirts to, plus whatever higher-level stretch goal premiums you promised…?

Clearly there’s a way of making this work — the whole cost + packaging + shipping thing probably explains why things like wallpapers are so popular as stretch goal premiums — but just as clearly some people don’t think about the details when they design their campaign. The Doubleclicks suggest very thoroughly spreadsheeting everything before you take step one of putting your campaign up. Smart advice; everyone should do it.

Another interesting point was that you need to look at how many active fans you have — people who already know you, like your work, and who are regularly in touch through a newsletter or your web site or Twitter or whatever you use. That number is a key factor in how much money you can realistically ask for. People who are already popular will be able to raise more money. People who are just starting out and have no friends outside their mother and their office mate at the day job will have a much harder time. Again, it makes sense, but some people seem to think Kickstarter is a magic pot of money that they just have to reach out and take. The Doubleclicks talk about how to analyze the size of your existing network, compare it with successful campaigns run by people in your business and the size of their networks at the time their campaign started, and figure out about how much you can realistically hope to get. Math is good when you’re dealing with money.

There’s a lot of great info here — if you’ve ever thought of doing a crowdfunding campaign, or might some day, go check it out.

Angie

The Black Hole that is Facebook Advertising

In case anyone’s still using Facebook to market their work, Colleen Doran — comic writer and artist, who writes some great business posts when she’s not busy making a living — talks about why paying Facebook to try to reach more people is an expensive waste. Buying ads to get more “likes” actually makes it harder for your real fans to see what you post. The more you spend to get more likes on your page, the fewer real fans see each post. Facebook won’t fix this because they’re making money on it.

Check out Colleen’s post and watch the video by Veritasium, explaining an experiment they did and the conclusions drawn. Every time I see something like this, I’m that much happier I’ve never bothered with Facebook.

Angie

Looks Like Astroturfing, Quacks Like Astroturfing…

I got a book recommendation in my e-mail from someone I have friended on Goodreads. Okay, that happens occasionally. I click through to check out the book.

What I see is that only one other person I know has reviewed it, and they’re just boinging because it’s out, rather than talking about the book itself. There are a bunch of reviews from people I don’t know. Okay, I can work with that, usually, and with a 4.65 average rating with over 50 ratings, that usually means a pretty awesome book.

Except there’s a weird sort of uniformity about these reviews. The very first one has links to a bunch of vendor pages where you can buy the book — who besides the author ever does that? — and some animated GIFs, and a lot of generic squee. And hey, there’s another review a ways below that with… links to a bunch of vendor pages. Same format. o_O Lots of generic squee, and quite a few “OMG I got my ARC!” type comments. Some mentions of a coming blog tour. Very little actual discussion of the book itself, of parts people like or dislike — you know, the useful stuff that shows up in a useful review.

Huh, smells like a street team.

Not that there’s necessarily anything wrong with a street team. My understanding is that the term came out of the music business, where a street team is a group of people who hit the streets in a town where a band is coming to play a gig soon. They talk up the show, put posters up everywhere, make it look like there’s a lot of buzz and excitement about the band, make people want to come hear them, make it feel like the show’s going to be awesome fun and everyone should be there. Street-level marketing. Oh, and the street team is usually paid, even if it’s just in T-shirts and show tickets and stuff.

A lot of writers are using street teams now to build up buzz about a new book. They form a group of fans who are willing to go out and generate buzz when a new book comes out, fans who are usually paid in free books and maybe some swag. And seriously, if a writer has enough fans to form a street team, that says something about their writing right there, so that’s cool so far as it goes. Having a bunch of people read your book early and post reviews right away, whether on Goodreads or Amazon or their blogs or anywhere else, can certainly help build buzz, and that can be a good thing.

But I read Goodreads for reader reviews. Information about the book, posted by readers who’ve read it. When I see that the whole first page of reviews looks like it was written by people who are all focusing on the squee rather than the useful info, when I see a bunch of readers who put up a great rating with “review to come,” when I see a bunch of not-really-a-review reviews that look like they were all written from the same press release…? I get the feeling that these aren’t actually reviews. They feel like coordinated buzz put up by a bunch of people who are all following the same set of instructions. (Seriously, how many individual reviewers put up multiple links to a book’s buy page on multiple vendors? And to see that twice in the first handful of reviews…? [eyeroll])

Having a bunch of individuals — not Capitol-R Reviewers who own or contribute to a review site, but just-folks type readers — put up reviews is valuable because readers like me like to see what individual readers have to say about a book. People go to Goodreads for grassroots book reviews, written by individuals who’ve read a book and are reviewing it. When what we find is a bunch of cookie-cutter reviews that sound way too similar, with lots of squeeage but very little info about the book, reviews that all seem to be cribbing from the same info packet? That doesn’t look like a grassroots response — that looks like astroturfing. It feels fake, it feels manipulative, and it doesn’t make me want to dash out and buy the book, or even put it on my to-buy list.

I’m ignoring that book I was recced. If I hear about it again in the future, if I see people I know — who’ve actually read it — talking about it, saying what they think, discussing bits they liked or disliked, then I might buy it later. For right now, though, all I know is that a bunch of people were handed some kind of crib sheet and instructed to go out and squee. My immediate response is negative, though, and any future buzz I run into about it is going to have to overcome that.

I can see street teams working. And heck, maybe there are readers who’ll see someone they don’t know post, “OMG this book is awesome! I heart it so much!! Five stars!! Everyone has to buy it!!!” and will immediately run out and get it. I’m not one of them, though, and I suspect there are a lot of readers like me. If I had a street team, I’d ask folks to actually read the book, discuss what specific parts they liked (and even disliked, if any), and maybe throttle back on the squee some. Because new-release grassroots buzz should at least look like a spontaneous outpouring of enthusiasm, rather than a carefully coordinated release of marketing push. In my opinion, anyway.

No sale. Try again next time.

Angie