This blog is devoted to remembrances and essays on general topics, including literature and writing. It has evolved over time, and some older posts on this site might reflect a different perspective and purpose.

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Friday, April 26, 2013

Grade Inflation, Literary Style

            I suppose it’s a sign of literary grade inflation that when a reviewer gives a book three stars out of five and calls it a fun read, Amazon classes that as a “critical” review. That just happened with my mystery, The McHenry Inheritance, and if that’s the worst review the book gets, I’ll take it to the bank any time.
            When I was setting up my author page on Goodreads, there was a caution about negative reviews, part of which read, in effect, not every review will be five stars. It seems that five stars is the expected standard nowadays, and anything less is a letdown.
            So far, my book has nine reviews on Kindle. Seven of them are five stars, one is four stars, and the one just put up is three stars. That’s pretty respectable, and since five stars is probably what most searching readers are looking for, I’m grateful to have a few of those on the page. Still, I would have given my book only three stars.

When In Doubt, Flunk ‘Em Out

            Maybe I’m just a hard-ass grader, but to me a five-star mystery is one where the plotting, writing, atmosphere, and characters are all so spectacularly well-done that at the end, you put the book down and say, “Wow!”
            A four-star book would be one that is considerably above the norm, but not quite in the pantheon. Three stars is a book that’s solid, entertaining, and well written, but that doesn’t have that special something that takes it to the next notch. Two stars is for a book that’s problematic but has some points of interest and could be worth reading depending on your tastes. Less than two stars — Fuhgeddaboutit. As a college professor of my acquaintance likes to say, “When in doubt, flunk ‘em out.”
            What constitutes a five-star book can also change with the times. When E.C. Bentley’s classic, Trent’s Last Case, first came out a century ago, it was so wildly inventive and original that it would have been a five-star book, no doubt. After all these years, it’s still worth reading, but probably not too many people would give it five stars today. Probably the last five-star mystery I read was Sjowall and Wahloo’s The Laughing Policeman, and that was back in October.

Building An Audience Takes Time

            Conventional wisdom says that reviews help attract readers, but the payoff can take time. The McHenry Inheritance was first published nine months ago, and I’m just beginning to hear from the people who found out about it on their own, rather than through knowing me. So far they seem to like it, and that’s a good thing.
            When the book first came out, I had fantasies of it going viral, like Fifty Shades of Grey. Unfortunately, I forgot to put any S&M scenes in my book, so it hasn’t taken off quite that fast. That’s probably the typical experience. A self-published author has to put the book out, flog it relentlessly, blog, use social media, offer free promotions — the whole nine yards.
            It’s hard to get someone to buy a book by an author they never heard of, even if the book is only $2.99 on Kindle. And unless you bought the book on the recommendation of a trusted friend, you probably aren’t going to put it at the top of the reading list. Not everybody who buys it will read it; not everyone who reads it will like it; and not everyone who likes it will review it. Building the numbers in those areas takes time. Patiently, I wait.