Sunday, September 30, 2012

How to Fix Amazon’s Book-Rating System

So, writers have all heard the hullabaloo going on for the past month (?) about other writers buying positive book reviews for themselves and leaving negative book reviews for their competitors with anonymous accounts.

Despite the fact that this argument still “rages” and has caused me to unsubscribe to some very prominent publishing blogs, there seems to be one issue that we can all agree on: Amazon’s rating system is useless for books. This was obvious to me before all the corruption was brought out into the open. Well before authors started confessing to behavior ranging from shady to evil, I stopped paying any attention to the book reviews on Amazon. It was apparent that for a lot of books, most of the reviews were fake, left by family, friends, publishing-industry marketers, I dunno. But way too positive.

And I really rely on reviews for most things. I rarely even watch a movie on Netflix Instant without seeing what other people think of it first, because it’s so easy to waste a whole afternoon on 15 minutes worth of one piece of shit after the other. So for me to start ignoring book reviews, the system has to be really screwed. When I do pay attention, it’s usually 1. for free stuff and 2. the negative reviews, which is why one of the most evil and least empathetic things I can think of for a writer to do is leave a false 1-star for another writer. I assume the 30 5-stars are fake and the few 1-stars calling out poor editing, thin characters and unbelievable plot are true, even if no specifics are mentioned. Why? Because most people can’t write and everyone can publish, so I believe the worst.

The thing is, the fix is so easy that I don’t know why the situation has gotten to this point.

If you’re not a writer, you might not know that a lot of writers consider readers at goodreads, librarything and shelfari to be much tougher critics than the readers at amazon. No, they’re not! Yes, books consistently get a lower average rating, but it’s not because the readers are tougher. It’s because they’re rating every single book they read.

I have a terrible memory. Before I self-published, I used goodreads to keep track of every book I’d read. Some readers use Goodreads and the like sites to connect to other readers and socialize and tell people which books they think are good and which aren’t. I used it to keep track of what I’d read because I’d constantly forget. I wish I’d started keeping track back in grade school (not on Goodreads, obviously). A lot of people use goodreads the way I once did.

People rate on amazon because they loved or hated something, and if they purchased inside a favorite genre, the scale shifts dramatically away from hate, just by the book following conventions and being about something they like. So people either don’t leave reviews because the book was meh, or leave positive reviews. Add that to friends and family, and suddenly your amazon average is way higher than your goodreads average, where people recording every book they read are as likely to go to the trouble to rate something 2 or 3 stars as 4 or 5.

So your reviews at these sites are far more likely to reflect what people who read in your genre really think of your book on average. These readers aren’t tougher (they’re the same people). They’re just more consistent at leaving their opinions. So you also get a LOT more reviews.

And that’s how Amazon fixes its book reviewing system. They bought Shelfari in 2008. Even if they don’t import the actual reviews, they need to list a shelfari 5-star system right beside their amazon 5-star system, with numbers of each star rating (2,451 3-star ratings), and an average. These systems are much harder to game because the number of reviews is so much greater.

The other fix would be to give people an incentive to review more on Amazon. This would get people leaving reviews of books they’d otherwise just have said, “meh” about. The benefit of this over Shelfari is that the incentive would only be for reviews of verified purchases. The drawback is that it would cost whatever the incentive is, be it $0.10 towards an ebook for each review or whatever.

There you go. I’m a goddamn genius.

By the way, I’m not interested in arguing the morality of fake reviews. Luckily, this blog is my platform and not a public forum and I’ll delete the hell out of whatever comments I like.

The internet doesn’t really tempt me into procrastination. I don’t even know how people get addicted to Facebook. I must not be using it right. But gets me. Those lists! I LOVE LISTS. This morning, I spent about an hour of time I should have been writing browsing cracked. This is one of the best things I’ve ever seen on there: 15 Old Photographs That Prove the World Used to Be Insane

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

The Ghosts Want Me to Tell Their Tale

I had a good writing session this morning. Wrote a couple of thousand words, arriving at what I think will be the third-way point of my story. It’s a haunted house story. I love haunted house stories, and I think this one is turning out. It’s hard to tell when you’re mired in the middle, but I think it’s turning out.

Per usual, I stopped at about noon to eat lunch before heading to work. That’s cutting it pretty close, but hey, my mornings are for writing, not lollygagging (wow, according to Word that’s actually how you spell “lollygagging”). I put some potatoes on to “bake” (nuke), and then went back down through my office, which has the back exterior door to my herb garden. I wanted some fresh thyme to put on my baked potatoes, because I’m hoity toity and highfalutin.

As I opened the exterior door, the inner door to my office slammed shut. Thinking nothing of it, I headed out, clipped my thyme then came back in. However, when I tried to go from my office into the house, the door handle spun in my hand. And spun. And spun.

Then the microwave sounded the melodious news that my potato was done. I thought about knocking down the door. I honestly did. But I decided to try to slip something between the doorjamb and try to pop the latch. But there was nothing in the room both slim and solid enough. So, once again, I thought about knocking the door down. But because the door opens into the room, I literally would have had to knock it down, not just break the latch. I’ve done it once before, pushed a door out the wrong way, during a night terror. The frame went with it.

I hadn’t eaten yet, just had coffee. So I was especially angry due to low blood sugar. However, the thought came to me that the hinges were on my side, so I popped the door off its hinges.

What closed that door in the first place? Some people will say it was air pressure. I’m one of those people.

But it was the ghosts, telling me to continue writing their tale. And I said, Screw you ghosts. I’m really hungry.

Do you have a Goodreads account? If so, you should follow this link to The Hoard’s page, scroll down and click the “Enter to Win” button. You might win an advanced review copy. If I get as famous as my mom says I will, it will be worth a lot of money one day. I can even imagine a Citizen Ryker type situation where I’m on my deathbed. My simple dream of being an author has turned into a soul-crushing series of compromises and disillusionments, and the ARC of The Hoard has become my rosebud, reminding me of simpler days when the world still contained magic.

I can imagine then offering you millions of dollars for your ARC. Now, I can’t guarantee this outcome, but I’d say there’s a 97% chance. So go try to win one!

Friday, September 14, 2012

Snookie Bookie Wookiee

The Wookiee is my dog, Chewbacca:
He's very literary
Anyway, whenever a person talks about the death of traditional publishing, they always mention the Snookie book. Always. All. Ways.

I myself have never mentioned it before the previous paragraph. Because I don't really care. Not because it's not reprehensible, but because things often fail to make me care.

But I was just going through my Galley Cat rss feed, and these 3 stories occurred within 10 stories:

Kevin Costner Lands Book Deal

Now, the Santana book is at least a memoir. But seriously, wouldn't it be nice if writers wrote books? You may say I'm a dreamer, but I'm not.

Edit: I spelled Snooki wrong! Now that's cultural cred. Gangsta!

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Physical Manifestations of Immorality

I've been thinking about this topic for a long time. I'm probably currently too tipsy and scattered to do it justice, but I'm going to give it a go anyway, inspired by this well-researched and insightful article about blondes in B&W horror films.

It can be kind of funny to look at the racism in old fiction, how easy it is to figure out who will be evil/stupid/cowardly. When there's almost a century distancing us from it, it's easy enough to laugh about the swarthy villains vs. the courageous Europeans in The Lord of the Rings. The African cultures represented in the Conan stories are either idiotic fodder or bestial evil, with apes in their recent or distant ancestry.

One of the most shocking examples I found recently was a story buried in the Lovecraft ouvre. You've probably never read Medusa's Coil, and I'm going to spoil it for you. You know how Lovecraft's stories often end with a shocking one-line twist, often exclaimed by the narrator, usually the most shocking revelation in a story packed with weird revelations? "Medusa's Coil" ends with one of these.

A rich southern gentleman falls in with a new age-y witch and marries her. But it turns out her hair kills people! And it turns out she's the bride of Cthulhu! And it turns out that her hair continues to kill people from beyond the veil! And then, it turns out that "though in deceitfully slight proportion, Marceline was a negress."

Seriously, if you ever wondered if Lovecraft were truly racist or just casually racist, the big twist delivered in the final line about a character who is the bride of fucking Cthulhu and whose hair fucking kills people is that she's an octoroon. Wow. Now that's racist.

Like I said, though, with enough distance you can laugh at the descriptions of slack lips and dark skin which are cues to a character's low intelligence or evil intent. Yes, "black" is still shorthand for evil, and "light" for good (I do understand that we're a species with poor night vision), but most writers have enough fear of public reprisal to avoid being overtly racist.

But physical characteristics representing moral standing are still very prevalent, and in fiction there's really no excuse for it. As the above article mentions, it's very useful for filmmakers. Lazy, but useful. In books, a writer has to go out of their way to describe a character, using the same amount of words that could be used to describe a characteristic which actually has bearing on a character's moral disposition. But it's easy to hope you share a common prejudice with your reader.

The problem is most apparent in children's fiction, where bad characters are almost always ugly (though not necessarily vice versa). Big noses, poor posture, bad skin. And this is recent. Correct me if I'm wrong, but I remember the family Harry Potter lives with being described in unflattering physical terms, at least in the early books (which are the only ones I read).

It is possible to find the opposite, though: attractive evil. But there is one physical flaw which always points to laziness, stupidity and evil: excessive body fat.

A few facts: our work has become more sedentary, and our (American) cities have been built to discourage physical activity. We are bombarded with images of rich food which instantly spark hunger. Our hormone levels are being feminized. Be it by plastic or space alien rays plotting for easier conquest, our internal environments are making it harder to carry muscle and easier to store fat. Life is becoming more stressful, and stress causes cortisol release which causes the body to store fat.

Everyone would admit that a person facing these factors is statistically more likely to be overweight than someone not. And yet, authors seem to feel totally comfortable using "overweight" as shorthand for lacking-in-character. In the past month, I've read several books in which bullies are fat kids (and are said to not even be up to bullying for being too fat!). Jack Ketchum's Old Flames is the most recent (I love his work and don't think it's the most egregious example, but  as the most recent, it's the freshest in my mind). My experience was that way more bullies are fit than fat. But I'm not sure it has a bearing on the situation either way in most cases. Having abs like a loaf of challah bread doesn't make a person good--or bad.

There are points buried in this post, but I'm tired of writing, so I'm just going to say that I think the practice of using the physical to represent the internal in fiction is lazy and weird. Lazy because it's shorthand for subtle character development, and weird that a person would feel so comfortable exposing their prejudices.

"Those anuses were haunting me in my sleep!"

Saturday, September 8, 2012

My Sitting Desk

A lot of people have been asking me about my desks (no one has ever asked about my desks) so I thought I'd share some photos of my sitting desk after a productive Saturday morning writing session. I use the term "sitting desk" because I also have a standing desk at which I often write.

Here is a picture of my sitting desk, with descriptions of some of the items upon it:

  1. Laptop: it sits upon a wooden box for better ergonomics. I use a wireless keyboard and mouse with it for the same reason. I also use the wireless keyboard because I hate the chiclet keyboard on my laptop. The keys are constantly becoming improperly seated.
  2. Windup toys: I dislike clutter, yet I like windup toys. I got that crab in Baltimore, MD, home of John Waters and a mall in which 50% of the stores sell 100% crab merchandise.
  3. Hand Lotion: I thought about removing the hand lotion from my desk, because people would think, "Hand lotion in the summer...? Alan Ryker is spending all his time sitting at his desk masturbating!" I keep lotion on my desk because, being half black, I tend to have dry skin. Now don't you feel like an asshole, you stupid racist?
  4. Computer monitor duh: sometimes I use a second monitor. I once did so frequently when I wrote health and fitness articles, because I'd need to have my research handy on one screen and my word processor on the other. Now I really only use it when doing cover design.
  5. A peg chess set: I like chess. This chess set is pretty useless, as the pawns, rooks, bishops and knights are all basically the same height. But it's the only peg chess set I have and it looks pretty neat.
  6. A denim pocket: Sometimes I use it as a mouse pad. Sometimes I use it to file my nails. Seriously.
  7. Sea Monkeys: more on those later.
  8. A playing card: I like to use playing cards as bookmarks and sight markers. It's not just an affectation. I've tried using note cards, but the texture prevents the card from sliding along the page. The playing card surface is just right for sliding down a page. Not that I read paper books much anymore.

Here's a closer shot of my laptop and windup toys, and some stone dice I got at the Smithsonian:

Here's my sea monkey aquarium. I circled the friskiest of my sea monkeys. When I'm thinking of the next line in a story, I like to watch it swim around. Sad story: I left my sea monkeys on the window sill for too long, they overheated and most of them died. I seem to have three left. I knew that at one time sea monkeys procreated, but I waited a long time and saw no babies. At first I thought maybe they'd figured some way to make them sterile mules, like genetically modified crops, but I looked it up and that's not the case. Turns out the eggs won't hatch if conditions aren't just right. I thought I might have to dehydrate the jar and rehydrate to jump start the process. Then the day before yesterday I noticed babies. Yay! They're not big enough to photograph yet.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

August Reads

August was a good month of reading. I got a lot read and read a lot of good stuff.

She Wakes - Ketchum, Jack
The ex-pats-leading-a-life-of-leisure aspect really reminded me of JG Ballard.

The Devil Next Door - Curran, Tim
Reminded me of JG Ballard's High Rise, right down to the dog eating. Apparently I have Ballard on the brain.

City Infernal (City Infernal, #1) - Lee, Edward

Heart-Shaped Box - Hill, Joe
Never read Joe Hill before. Thought maybe he'd gotten to where he's at through nepotism. Was very pleasantly surprised to learn otherwise.

Fear Me - Curran, Tim
Great voice and tone.

Basilisk - Masterton, Graham

The Killing Kind - Smith, Bryan

Dweller - Strand, Jeff
A totally original delight! Highly recommended.

The Cellar - Laymon, Richard

The Half-Made World - Gilman, Felix
Like the Dark Tower series, but coherent and entertaining throughout. I usually don't read fantasy set in other worlds, because I find the transmission of that information really boring, but this was entertaining and inventive.

Vs. Reality (Vs. Reality, #1) - Northcott, Blake

Orgy of Souls - White, Wrath James and Maurice Broaddus

Kingdom (Tiber City, #1) - O'Donnell, Anderson

Fuckness - Prunty, Andersen

Attic Clowns Volume One - Shipp, Jeremy C.

The Day of the Locust - West, Nathanael
The biggest surprise of the month. I starting reading this only because it's in the Modern Library's Greatest Novels of the 20th Century list, which I've been slowly working at for the past decade. This book is crazy, and I highly recommend it. Though it was published in 1939, it totally has the feel of a modern transgressive novel. Disturbing and hilarious.

Everything Here Is the Best Thing Ever: Stories - Taylor, Justin
Really enjoyed this short story collection.

Kissing You is Like Trying to Punch a Ghost - Martinez, Brian
Very clever and entertaining.

The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian (Conan the Cimmerian #1) - Howard, Robert E.
This is one of the two massive tomes of weird tales that slowed me down last month.

The Road Through Wonderland: Surviving John Holmes - Schiller, Dawn
I had no idea that a bunch of Boogie Nights was based on Holmes' life. The story is interesting. The writing is bad, and drags.

Buddha in Blue Jeans: An Extremely Short Simple Zen Guide to Sitting Quietly and Being Buddha - Sheridan, Tai

The Bleeding Season - Gifune, Greg F.
Aims high and achieves a lot. Very literary horror.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

The Gift of (Alien Parasitic) Life

A present? I love presents!

What the hell is this?

Oh, I see. An alien facehugger. Delightful!

So affectionate

The facehugger is suing for parental rights of the xenomorph chestburster. Turns out that "legitimate" esophageal parasitic rape won't lead to implantation. The body has ways to deal with it. The fact that the xenomorph took indicates that I wanted it.

Anyway, thanks Alison! It's by far the most disturbing yarn craft I've ever seen!