The one where I look at what’s changed since I was published – and it’s not all positive!

I have two publication anniversaries. I have 23rd May which is the day that my debut novella was published and today – 3rd June – when my debut novel was published, both seven years ago. I tend to think of today as being my proper publishing anniversary as the novella snuck in last minute as a prequel to my debut series and the big build was for the publication of Searching for Steven (now New Beginnings at Seaside Blooms) on 3rd June 2015.

The evolution of my debut from published to indie to published again

I sometimes do reflective posts to celebrate key milestones and these usually involve me talking about my journey to publication and the struggle of the first five years as a published author. Today, I am going to be reflective but in a different way. I want to look at some of the changes that I’ve noticed in the publishing industry during those seven years. I emphasise the use of the words ‘I’ve noticed’ as this isn’t some deep research piece; it’s my observations.

I’ll start with some of the really positive changes/initiatives I’ve seen…

INCREASE IN AUDIO POPULARITY

It’s widely reported that audiobooks have had a massive surge in popularity over recent years. I’m not going to quote facts and figures at you but, believe me, we’re talking enormous. The pandemic helped but they were already on an upward trajectory.

Audiobooks have made reading accessible to a much wider audience and I love hearing from listeners as to when/where they listen as it’s so varied – while out walking (with or without a dog), driving, when struggling to sleep at night, while doing household tasks like ironing or cooking – as well as those who love audio because reading is a challenge due to chronic illness, eyesight, arthritis or any number of other health issues.

One of the (huge number of) wonderful things about my publisher, Boldwood Books, is that they don’t wait until a certain amount of time has passed or a certain level of sales are attained before an audiobook will be considered. It’s part of the multi-format offering right from the start, meaning all preferences are catered for from publication day.

A positive initiative within audio is the Audible Plus programme. Launched in the UK in July 2021, this is a catalogue of over 7,500 titles which are free to Audible subscribers. I will admit that I had a moment of panic when Boldwood contacted me to say that six of my titles were going into Audible Plus, especially when I only had eleven books out at that time meaning we were giving more than half away for free. It has, however, turned out brilliantly because I regularly get messages from readers or see reviews stating that the listener wouldn’t have picked my books but decided to give one a try as it was free and they became hooked, finishing the rest of the series – or even my whole audio collection – using their credits.

The six titles of mine are shown in the graphic below and it includes the first of the Hedgehog Hollow series and the first two of the Welcome to Whitsborough Bay series, acting as great hooks into the rest of those two series.

AUDIOBOOKS AVAILABLE ON STREAMING SERVICES

The way people listen to music has changed a lot over the past decade. I’ll admit that I’m old school and still buy CDs although I need to change that because all I do is upload them onto my Mac and listen to them there. We own a CD player but it’s old and past its best and I got a pre-loved car recently and it doesn’t have one so I don’t really have anywhere to play them!

Anyway, streaming services are where it is for music but did you know that you can also listen to audiobooks this way? It’s not promoted by Spotify or other providers because, while a CD is naturally broken down into tracks, a book isn’t. Boldwood use a company called Zebrulation who carve up the audiobook into three-minute tracks to fit the streaming model. If somebody has subscribed to a streaming service and is listening to a streamed book that way, they won’t notice any difference to listening to it on Audible. However, if they’re listening to a free version with adverts, they’ll have 3-4 tracks and then an advert. The advert break may come mid-sentence so it’s not the ideal listening experience but it’s another format which some will love.

The author gets paid, even if the listener is using a free streaming service.

RETAILERS WORKING WITH INDEPENDENT PUBLISHERS

Historically, if you were with an independent publisher, you had pretty much zero chance of getting into a bookshop or supermarket as they would only deal with the big publishers. If an author has the confidence to approach their local indie bookshop, WH Smith or Waterstones, they might be able to convince them to stock copies of their books and even host a signing event but this various massively from shop to shop. Some are very receptive and some aren’t.

Recently, there has been some evidence of supermarkets and chain retailers trialling books from smaller publishers. The Works have been leaders in this. They’ve had a programme with Boldwood since spring 2020. It stalled at the beginning as we went into lockdown when the first books were meant to go into store, and it had a hesitant re-start but it’s back on track and I’m very thrilled to have had six books into The Works so far. Family Secrets at Hedgehog Hollow has gone into shops very recently and readers may still find copies of New Arrivals at Hedgehog Hollow loitering on the shelves if they’ve been placed high, low or behind other books.

This week it’s half-term and I went through to Monks Cross, a retail park on the outskirts of York, with my daughter. That’s where our nearest Asda is and I can’t resist looking at the books any time I’m in a supermarket (not very often as hubby does the food shopping). I was delighted to see Boldwood author Erin Litteken’s The Memory Keeper of Kyiv in there. It’s the only Boldwood book to go into Asda so far but it’s a fantastic start and huge congratulations to Erin.

Another Boldwood author is going into Sainsbury’s but I can’t say who yet as it’s not my news to share but hopefully that will also pave the way for others. And there’s some other exciting news involving a high street retailer which will also hopefully be a success. (Apologies for being cryptic but it’s also not my news to share but fingers crossed it will be one day).

These are all really exciting developments in publishing since I’ve become a published author, but now I move onto the not so positive trends…

READERS EXPECTING BOOKS TO BE FREE

Oh my goodness, where do I start on this? Let’s go for two myths:

Myth 1 – Authors are rich: Even if someone is not a reader, they’ll have heard of certain authors because their books have been so entrenched in popular culture and often made into films/TV series, such as J K Rowling, E L James, Stephen King, Dan Brown and so on. And, of course, the more recent publishing phenomenon Richard Osman. These authors are right at the top of their game and their bank balances will reflect that.

But for most authors, it is a struggle to make money from publishing. Many still have a day job around which they write. For my first five years as a published author, I had a demanding full-time day job and wrote on evenings and weekends. My writing goal was to earn enough to leave the day job. I’m very thankful that I have been able to afford to write full-time for the past two years … for now. This is in jeopardy for many authors because of the alarming trends I’m going to discuss but let us address that other myth first.

Myth 2 – Authors are not ‘real’ authors if they want to make money: Excuse my abbreviated swearing but WTF? This is currently all over Twitter and BookTok and I can’t quite believe what I’m seeing. I can’t help thinking that this absurd attitude is a way of justifying the blatant theft of books which I’m going to come to a moment.

There is some kind of crazy attitude towards the creative arts that it’s all about the creative just wanting their words/music/art to be out there in the public domain for the benefit of the people because that is reward enough for us. Again, I say WTF!!!!

When I’m asked for writing tips, one of the ones I give is Don’t become an author because you hope to make lots of money. Write because there’s a story burning inside you that you have to tell. The reason I say this is because most authors don’t make much money so if you’re in it hoping to be the next top-of-their-game millionaire, then that’s not a good enough motivation as you will invest a gazillion hours and very likely not even earn a tenth of minimum wage for that effort. But it does NOT mean you should expect to earn nothing from your writing. We still need to put food on the table and pay the bills! A real author is someone who has written a book which has been published. And they deserve to be paid for it.

So, with those two myths laid out bare, what terrifying trends have I seen in my seven years as a published author?

Trend 1 – Readers who’ll ONLY buy ebooks when they’re on a free promotion

I’d like to think that it goes without saying that if an ebook is free to you the reader, the author makes nothing from it. There’s not some clever loophole here. ‘Selling’ it for free means zero income for that ebook. As an aside, an ebook for 99p generates very little income too. For an indie author, they will receive 35% of this amount from Amazon i.e. 35p. I don’t know the exact amount from other sales platforms but it will be similar. This percentage rises to 70% if the ebook is £1.99 and above so the author needs to sell four ebooks at 99p to earn the same as one book at £1.99. For those with publishers, the figures will vary slightly depending on the deal the publisher has negotiated but it’s a similar principle.

What’s brilliant about free promo books is that it allows you to try an author who isn’t known to you with no financial investment. If you don’t like the book/their style, then you haven’t lost anything other than the bit of time it has taken you to read it (or partially read it if you ditch it). I personally don’t ‘buy’ many free books but I have occasionally taken advantage of a free offer and have discovered a few new-to-me and debut authors this way.

Another great thing about a free promo is grabbing a backlist book from an author you love. Perhaps you discovered that author after they’d released several books and it would be a huge financial outlay to grab their entire back catalogue in one go but this gives you the chance to acquire the one you’ve missed while paying for others.

But there is a worrying trend of readers who will ONLY buy books when they’re free. I’ve seen comments on Facebook groups specifically asking which books are free at the moment and, while not a problem in itself – who doesn’t love a bargain? – it’s the accompanying comments suggesting ways of always getting free books (some of which I’m going to cover as separate trends) and discussions about how books should be free all the time.

When I was an indie author, I put several of my books on a free promotion over time and I justified to myself that giving them away for free – particularly a first in series – would hopefully generate additional sales (and therefore income) as the readers who had them for free would love my books/be hooked in. I found no discernible difference in sales. Why? I’ll never know for definite but there is a school of thought that, because there’s no lengthy buying decision and no investment in a free book, the ‘purchase’ will often just sit on a Kindle and never be read. Eek!

Since joining Boldwood, I’ve had a few free offers but they’ve had more success. In August 2020, we offered Christmas at Carly’s Cupcakes for free as a specific promotion plan to lead-in to follow-on book Starry Skies Over The Chocolate Pot Café being published a month later. I believe it generated some interest for Starry Skies … although it also gathered me a handful of negative reviews for Carly’s Cupcakes from people who didn’t like this type of book (but had grabbed it for free) and people who thought it was too early for Christmas (but still grabbed it for free!)

Apple’s Free Book of the Week programme has been successful for me. I’ve had Making Wishes at Bay View (book 1 in the Welcome to Whitsborough Bay Series) and Finding Love at Hedgehog Hollow (book 1 in the Hedgehog Hollow series) in this programme and they have both generated good sales for the rest of the series, particularly for the Hedgehog Hollow one. The author makes no money from the free book but hopefully gains new readers who buy the others in the series (and maybe even a backlist).

I absolutely do advocate taking advantage of free offers and 99p promotions but if a reader never pays for a book, they aren’t supporting their favourite authors because those authors aren’t making any money from this and, as already stated, myth 2 is crap! We can’t survive on air!

Trend 2 – Pirate Sites

Downloading a book from a pirate site is theft and there’s no justification for it. It’s also very dangerous as some of these pirate sites aren’t even legitimate because they’re about grabbing your details and/or giving users a virus.

Encouraging users to get free books from pirate sites is something I’ve seen on social media with regular users justifying their use through myth 1: Authors are rich and they can afford it. Even if we all were, that still doesn’t justify stealing from us.

Another ‘justification’ is I’m skint and can’t afford books. So the solution is to steal them? Wow! I completely understand that finances are tight for so many, especially this year with the hideous hike in, well, absolutely everything! But theft isn’t the answer because finances are tight for many authors too and pirate sites are making them even tighter. So many authors have to stop writing because they can’t afford to continue. For those who don’t have the income, there’s this amazing facility called a library. I appreciate that libraries can only stock a small proportion of books written but ebooks are very accessible through a number of library routes – readers don’t have to physically go into a library. And the author gets paid. It’s not much (11p or thereabouts) but it’s roughly on par with how much they’d earn on the sale of a paperback and it does add up.

Trend 3 – Only getting ebooks from NetGalley but not being an influencer

NetGalley “connects publishers with reviewers, librarians, booksellers, media, and educators who discover new books on NetGalley and recommend them to their audiences” (NetGalley’s website). The idea is that, in advance of the publication date, a publisher will provide a copy of an ebook for free to those in an influential position who have an audience/following and can give an early review to create a buzz about the book and hopefully generate pre-orders or sales on/just after publication.

Where NetGalley is properly used, it’s brilliant. Each book my publisher releases goes onto NetGalley and embarks on a blog tour on publication date. The reviewers/bloggers on the tour get hold of the ebook through the site and share their thoughts on a pre-agreed date on the tour. Some influencers not on the tour will also get hold of it and share their reviews.

But so will a stack of other readers who don’t have that influence. They use NetGalley as a source of perpetually free books. They need to leave a review on NetGalley’s website to keep their feedback rating high (which is what publishers look at when approving who can get books) and that’s the bare minimum some will do. Many barely even manage that, leaving a generic sentence which suggests they haven’t even read the book. Last year, I spotted a very generic short NG review which sounded familiar. I noticed that the same reviewer had shared that exact review for my previous release and a bit of wider checking revealed a stack of author friends who had the exact same generic review from them too. Perhaps they read them and this was just a bit of lazy reviewing, perhaps they didn’t, but it didn’t benefit the authors in any way.

I am very grateful to the readers who use NG properly – the ones who leave a spoiler-free review specific to that book (doesn’t have to be long but does need to be specific) and who have a platform to share this. Sadly, there are far too many who abuse this system. If a reader cannot say hand on heart that they meet the description in the quote at the start of this section, then they are not supporting their favourite authors because they are getting all that author’s releases for free and, as already stated, we can’t survive on air. And if we have no income, we can’t keep writing.

Trend 4 – Returning ebooks for free after reading them

This is the most alarming trend which actually makes me feel physically sick. It started around March when several videos went viral on BookTok (on TikTok) with an ‘awesome hack’ – that you can buy an ebook on Kindle and, after you’ve read it, return it for a no-question refund. Authors started reporting phenomenal increases in returns and some are even now in a negative balance with Amazon because, even though Amazon are giving the reader a refund, they’re charging the author for the return.

I received my royalties statement for March this week and it was significantly lower than the statements for the previous few months – roughly a 20% dip. This could be coincidence and I write this having not yet spoken to my publisher about it but I can’t help feeling it’s a bit too much of a coincidence for that dip not to be the result of returns.

Just because Amazon’s returns policy makes this possible, does it make this right? A hundred per cent not! Why? Because it’s THEFT.

Life is full of decisions and some of those turn out well and some of them not so much. You go to the cinema to watch a film and sometimes you love it and sometimes you hate it but you won’t get your money back if it’s the latter. You buy a CD and you listen to it and don’t like it but you have to suck it up. You buy a dress and wear it out but you decide it’s not really you/you didn’t feel comfortable in it so it hangs in your wardrobe and you don’t wear it again. I have so many clothes like that! Or you go out for a meal and there was nothing technically wrong with it but it just wan’t to your taste. You don’t get your money back. So why would someone read a book and think that it’s okay to return it after they’ve consumed it just because they didn’t love it? Or, perhaps even worse, they did enjoy it but they decided to get their money back anyway because the policy allows it.

This has to stop. I barely slept last night and my stomach is in knots today worrying about this and what this means for the future of publishing because if this continues, all the authors whose income predominantly comes from ebook sales are absolutely screwed. I truly hope that the publishers will get together and address this as individual authors – even the big names – have no chance of tackling the might of Zon.

Any time an author has gone onto TikTok/BookTok or Twitter to challenge this, there’s a vicious pile-on giving the author abuse for being so entitled to think that they have a right to expect to be paid for their work – myth 2 – or the usual myth 1 suggestion that all authors are rich and can afford it.

I will just emphasise at this point that this is nothing to do with borrowing books on programmes like Kindle Unlimited, Prime Reading. These are legitimate borrowing programmes where you return a book when you’ve read it. The author gets paid for the number of pages read providing it exceeds a certain percentage. These are great programmes and thank you to anyone participating. I’m talking about buying an ebook outside of these programmes, reading it (or a significant part of it) and returning it for a refund. This is stealing. The reader has consumed the product and needs to pay for it.

The returns policy should be for legitimate returns – when an ebook has been re-issued and a duplicate has been bought in error (Kindle won’t let you buy an eBook twice but if it has been re-issued by a publisher who has acquired the rights or an indie author who has their rights back, it will be a new record on Amazon although the blurb should always say it’s a re-issue) or a ‘fat-finger’ purchase where the mistake has been realised and the ebook returned without reading it.

THE CHANGING APPROACH TO BOOK REVIEWS

Trend 5 – Leaving a negative review and tagging the author in on social media

As an author, I’m realistic. I’d love for everyone to love everything I write but that’s not going to happen. Some authors avoid reading their reviews because the negative ones hurt too much. I do read all mine and I’d like to say it gets easier to take the negative ones but they still make my stomach churn and fill me with doubt about my ability as an author when I read about how much readers hate my characters/plot/writing style/me. Okay, so they don’t specifically say they hate me but some of them are so vicious that they do feel very personal.

But this isn’t about negative reviews. This is specifically about tagging authors in them. There is a growing trend of sharing a negative review on Twitter or on Instagram and either directly tagging the author into it or using a hashtag with the author’s name which they’ll find if they’re following their own hashtag in order to thank people for any kind comments.

Why? Why would someone do this? There was a really great post about this on the blog of independent bookseller Tea Leaves and Reads recently. You can read the blog post here. Author Stephen Cox summarises this growing tagging trend with this brilliant quote: “It’s generally not done because a) they’ll see it anyway and b) if you think my baby is ugly, you are entitled to your opinion. You’re not really entitled to come to my house and shout YOUR BABY IS UGLY through the letterbox”. This! This absolutely sums it up.

Like many of my characters, I try to be kind and see the best in people and I find myself feeling sorry for these individuals. What must be going on in their lives to make them feel it’s okay to tag an author into a review to tell them how crap they think the book is? Does it make them somehow feel better about something in their life if they put someone else down? I’ve been tagged in and hashtagged into negative reviews and it floored me because it comes out of the blue. When I participate in a blog tour or I look at my reviews, I’m always prepared that there may be something negative. When someone tags me, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to expect it to be for a positive reason. I’m not saying readers can’t express their negative views on a book. Just don’t tag the author in. Pretty please. It’s mean and there’s plenty that’s mean and unpleasant already in the world without doing that.

Trend 6 – Reviewers who tell the author how they should have written the story

All reviewers have a different approach and there is no right or wrong way to write a review. As an author, I love reading reviews where the reader shares what they particularly loved about the story, how it made them feel and whether anything personally resonates with them. Spoiler-free of course! But that doesn’t mean that’s how reviews need to be written.

Recently, I’ve noticed a trend in reviews where the reader shares their opinion on what they think the characters should have done. This typically is full of spoilers too. I’m going to use a fictional example here to illustrate the point:

I really enjoyed this book but Amber wound me up. She should have told Pete about her doubts about being ready for a second baby. The indecision was ridiculous. Pete should also have been honest with Amber about being made redundant instead of trying to find a new job first because she could then have told him about her worries. Natalie shouldn’t have been so forgiving when her ex came back and revealed that he couldn’t cope with receiving his cancer diagnosis and had needed some space. If he really loved her, he’d have told her instead of disappearing for a month and they’d have worked through it together...

And so it goes on.

The thing about fiction is that (a) it’s fiction – a story made up by the author – but (b) it’s reflective of real life and in real life we all have personality quirks/flaws and occasionally make poor decisions. If the two couples in this fictional example had sat down and addressed their concerns immediately, where would the story be? What conflict would there be? The book would be a couple of chapters long and incredibly boring.

I do find myself very bewildered about this type of review because, aside from appearing to tell the author how their fictional characters should have behaved, it is full of spoilers which is not the point of a review. I understand reviewers saying that they struggle to warm to a character because of certain behaviours but this bold declaration that the behaviours were wrong is a little strange.

So there you have it. My rather long guide through some amazing developments in publishing since I became a published author seven years ago and some scary trends too which bewilder me and break my heart. I am blessed to have found some amazing readers and listeners who are so supportive of my writing, regularly engage with me, promote my work to others. I’m so very grateful to each and every one of them for their part in enabling me to continue to write full-time. But a 20% decrease in earnings is frightening and I just pray that those who are engaged in the ‘books for free’ trends think about the impact this will have on the publishing world. If a reader never pays for any books (or never borrows them from a library or legitimate subscription service through which the author gets paid), the author won’t have any money, the author won’t be able to afford to write any more books and there will be no books left to have for free.

I’m off to paint the bathroom now. It is, after all, a bank holiday weekend which means DIY doesn’t it? I’d love to hear your thoughts on these trends whether you’re an author or reader. Perhaps you’ve noticed others I haven’t mentioned.

Big hugs
Jessica xx

The one where you can win a chance to name a hedgehog in my next book

This week, Boldwood Books announced a fabulous competition we’re running on social media.

What’s the prize?

  • A chance to name a hedgehog in the second book in my Hedgehog Hollow series
  • The paperback of the second book in the series in which you’ve named the hedgehog
  • A gorgeous Wrendale Designs hedgehog bookmark – ‘Awakening’

Hedgehog Hollow Competition Twitter

How do you win?

  • Follow Book & Tonic on Facebook and/or @BoldwoodBooks on Twitter and share/retweet the competition post. On Twitter, this is the pinned post at the time of writing
  • Sign up to my newsletter by 30th August 2020. You can do this following this link: http://bit.ly/JessicaRedlandNewsletter
  • Anyone already signed up to my newsletter will also be included in the draw
  • A winner will randomly be drawn and announced on 31st August and that person will then be asked to name a hedgehog and will win the goodies

 

Screenshot 2020-08-19 at 10.36.07What if I win?

Boldwood Books will ask you for your chosen hedgehog name. It might be that you want to name him/her after yourself, a friend or family member. It might be that you choose the name of a family pet. Or you might get creative.

There are a few suggestions we won’t be able to accept:

  • Any swear words/racism/sexism or anything along those lines that is inappropriate
  • A hedgehog name that is already used in the first book – Finding Love at Hedgehog Hollow – but there are only six names used: Spike, Spikette, Sonic, Mrs Tiggywinkle, Mr Snuffles and Quilly
  • A name that matches any of the characters in the first or second book as it would be confusing to have a person and a hedgehog with the same name!

I’m editing this book at the moment and have a part of the story saved where I will slot in the name of the chosen hedgehog so I can’t wait to hear what’s picked.

We have a name for the second (and third) book but they’re being kept under wraps for the moment. The cover for book 2 should be revealed next month but the editing process will be ongoing so the book won’t actually be ready for print for some time yet but a copy will be put aside with your name on it (and your hedgehog’s name in it!) as soon as it is.

You can read the full T&Cs here: https://www.boldwoodbooks.com/competition-terms-conditions/

Good luck!

Big hugs

Jessica xx

 

 

The one where I think about the kindness and cruelty of strangers

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Image by Linus Schütz from Pixabay

How are you holding up? Do you ever have to remind yourself that this really is happening and not just a strange dream from eating too much cheese?

In the UK, we’re entering month 2 of lockdown. For those who work, it’s business as usual for some, immense additional volume and/or pressure for others, and there are those who find themselves furloughed or redundant and perhaps at a loose end. And many of those are turning to books.

In life before pandemic (concentrate hard and you’ll remember it), different people read at different times: before bedtime, on a commute to work, during breaks, all day (if they’re able) or perhaps only when on holiday.  Before pandemic, people read for different reasons: to learn, to be challenged, to switch off, to escape. In our reality now, the latter two have never been more important.

In a survey conducted by The Reading Agency, the people responsible for World Book Night, it was revealed that over 31% of people were reading more since lockdown began. They reported a 35% week-on-week boost for paperback fiction yet a drop of 13% in adult non-fiction sales. Bookstores with an online presence are reporting phenomenal increases in online sales (Waterstones, for example, reporting a 400% week-on-week increase) and the rise in new readers in digital format has been unprecedented.

This isn’t really surprising. In a world where we are staying home to stay safe, entertainment is needed, particularly for those who aren’t working, and books are an obvious place to turn, providing hours and hours of entertainment for a small financial outlay, or even for free. I’m not surprised that it’s fiction that has seen the surge either, based on that need to switch-off and escape.

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Image by Dariusz Sankowski from Pixabay

I write uplifting stories of love and friendship and, via my chart positions in AppleBooks and Amazon, I have seen a surge in readers escaping to the world of Whitsborough Bay. My amazing publishers, Boldwood Books, have massively raised my profile as an author through some wonderful recent promotions on Apple, Amazon and Kobo. The coincidental timing of these with lockdown has seen readers binge-reading the Welcome to Whitsborough Bay series and then turning to my other books to continue their fix. I’ve received messages on Facebook, Twitter and by email from readers thanking me for writing these books which have lifted them and given them a much-needed escape during difficult times. I feel so humbled to think that my words – written in a time when a worldwide pandemic was the domain of a Stephen King novel rather than reality – have given someone a much-needed hug.

I have been quite astonished by the reaction. By the kind words from strangers. By the virtual hugs I’ve received to thank me for the hug my book gave them. I wanted to share some of them here, received recently on Twitter and Facebook:

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There are many gorgeous reviews on Amazon and Apple too for which I am so appreciative. The kindness of strangers has been touching, heartwarming and, as I say, humbling.

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I come from the school of “if you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything”. However, as an HR Professional specialising in recruitment, coaching, learning & development, I know this is an ideal and not necessarily practical. In my current role as a tutor, I constantly need to give feedback about the assignments I’ve marked and I can’t say “that was amazing” when it clearly wasn’t and hasn’t met a single one of the criteria needed to pass. However, there’s a massive difference between writing something like “this is dire and clearly you will never secure an HR role” and writing “xxx was a good start but you may have misinterpreted the next point and what I’m looking for is xxxx” The difference is constructive feedback; feedback that doesn’t destroy the student and from which they can learn.

Which brings me to the other point of the title of this blog post: the cruelty of strangers. Oh my goodness, some people can be nasty. I’ve seen some reviews of books that can only be described as vicious and it makes me wonder whether the person writing them even pauses to think that there’s a human being at whom they’re directing their venom.

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Image by Free-Photos from Pixabay

I have been really lucky with most of my reviews. I confess that I do like a spreadsheet and I will admit to being a geek in keeping a reviews one for Amazon, which tells me that, at the time of writing this post, I have 518 reviews across my nine titles combined and 500 of those (96.5%) are at 5- or 4-star (416/84 respectively). Thirteen (2.5%) are at 3-star, 3 at 2-star and only 2 at 1-star (1% combined). I’m thrilled with this and it does help me think, in my insecure moments, that I might not be too shabby at this making up stories lark. But some of my lower ratings are a little cruel.

I must start with my all-time favourite insult for The Secret to Happiness. “Absolute pish” apparently. If I remember correctly, this reviewer also reviewed a book from a very big name writer and a charger for their car, all of which got the 1-star treatment. Obviously a tough customer to please. On first reading this, I’ll admit that my heart slipped down my body, ran out the office screaming and hurled itself down the stairs. And then I thought of them sitting there, so livid about their car charger and my book that they had to have such a rant yet they haven’t reviewed anything else. Nothing from Amazon has brought them 3-, 4- or even 5-star rating joy. I began to feel sorry for them. And I reminded myself that 55 x 5-star reviewers disagreed, although I can’t comment on what those lovely people might have said about the car charger 😉

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Then there was this very unfair one for New Beginnings at Seaside Blooms. The blurb said it has previously been released as a different title and it’s been all over social media. All the person needed to do was return it for their money back for a purchase made in error:

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Also in New Beginnings at Seaside Blooms, a reader took a strong dislike to my protagonist, Sarah. Yes, Sarah makes some questionable decisions but she learns from them. It’s known in writing as a character arc 🙂 Sarah is actually predominantly modelled on me and the book is inspired by a true-life story about me. That’s me told, then!

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I have a scathing review on Goodreads for Christmas at the Chocolate Pot Cafe. It’s not scathing because the person didn’t enjoy the book but because I hadn’t released it in the format of their choosing. Ouch! Okay, I admit it, the rise of eBooks as the chosen (and sometimes only) format for indie and trad-publisher releases is all my fault. I’ll take one for the team on that!

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Another reader didn’t like me having cancer in my books and went to pains to point out that there are other ways that people die and listed them. The book on which she placed this review had somebody who was in remission from cancer and, across all my books, I have many other forms of death where a death is required for the plot line. Another gave me a low review because she prefers erotica and my book was a bit tame. Had she looked at my covers and read my blurbs? I have no idea what about them would possibly suggest they could appeal to someone who only reads erotica!

But I have to save my ‘favourite’ review till the end. This is actually a 3-star review for the final part in the series, Coming Home to Seashell Cottage so, rating-wise, not so bad. It’s from someone who appears to have read the whole series… and hated it – and me. I’m ‘Redland’ – the one whose voice and characters are disliked:

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Why read the whole series when you “never enjoy them”. And what’s that about Ireland? It was read by an Irish proofreader and copy editor who Irish-ised it for me.

Confused by the review? Yes, I was too! And so was this reader whose comment made my day. Nice to have someone in my corner there:

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I don’t think negative reviews will ever not upset me but how long they upset me for has certainly diminished over time. Everyone has different tastes and my books aren’t going to appeal to everyone who picks them up, even if my genre is usually the one they enjoy. But it would be nice if people could be a little kinder if they haven’t enjoyed what they’ve read.

In fairness, all the negative reviews I’ve placed above with the exception of one were pre-lockdown and some are a few years old. We’re all facing challenges right now and a little bit of kindness – even if the message is 1- or 2-star rating – can go such a long way.

So I’ll leave this post with a big thank you to all those strangers who are kind, who have reached out, who have picked me up at a time when I am physically, mentally and emotionally drained because my day job has doubled in volume and I’m working 12-14 hours a day 7 days a week. Your kind words have meant the world to me and I look forward to creating more characters and stories to provide you all with further comfort and escapism.

Stay home, stay safe, stay kind.

Big (safely distanced) hugs

Jessica xx

PS All the messages and reviews are in the public domain but, in the interests of kindness, I have removed the name from the Amazon reviews. I therefore thought it only fair to remove the names from the kind comments too as this is a post about observing the differences between two approaches and not about popping anyone on the spot and making them feel uncomfortable

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Image by reneebigelow from Pixabay

The one where I get my first ever 1-star review on Amazon

I’ve done it! After nearly 4.5 years as a published writer with ten books out there, it has finally happened. Today, I received my first ever 1-star review on Amazon for my latest novel The Secret to Happiness.

Screenshot 2019-10-10 at 13.35.14In the writing community, the first 1-star review is often joked about as being the ‘rite of passage’ or it’s said that you’re ‘not a real author’ until you’ve received one. That might all sound very flippant but it’s a way of dealing with the blow of someone telling us that they thought that the novel that we spent months or even years creating with blood, sweat and tears is, quite frankly, a turd. Ouch. It hurts. But it happens.

Every big name from classics like Austen and Dickens to multi-billion contemporary best-sellers like J K Rowling, Stephen King and Dan Brown has 1-star reviews. So that puts me in pretty good company.

I am quite astonished that I’ve ‘survived’ this long without the lowest rating but I will admit that I smarted when I received it today and not for the reason you’d expect…

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Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

One-star reviews happen and, as authors, we need to accept that not everyone is going to love our story (would be a boring world if we all loved the same things). Some readers will come from the “if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything” school of thought and keep it to themselves whereas others will happily voice their negative opinions and some of those will do it with venom! Which is absolutely their right. Maybe not the venom part but it’s certainly their right to share their opinion.

No, what irked me was that Amazon have changed their rules around reviews. I obviously missed the memo about this and I still believed that it was not possible to just give a rating; words had to accompany it. Not anymore. Now a reader can simply give a rating with no explanation whatsoever and this is difficult to swallow.

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I still have a day job in Human Resources. As an HR Professional, one of my two specialisms is learning and development. I’m therefore all for a bit of (preferably constructive) feedback and I will happily learn from this in my writing career and action it where possible e.g. if a reader has spotted an error. What I can’t do is learn from a 1-star rating with no explanation. And neither can potential readers. I personally don’t make a buying decision based on reviews but there are plenty of readers out there who do and having low ratings without explanations doesn’t help them or the author.

I’ve seen 1-star reviews for other authors along these lines:

Book didn’t appear on my Kindle

Formatting seemed to go funny

Paperback didn’t arrive on time

Not read it yet so can’t rate it

It’s possible that the formatting is down to the author or publisher but not necessarily. The other scenarios above are definitely out of the author’s control and, if a prospective reader is looking at the reviews for a buying decision and the reason for the low-rating is explained as one of the above (or similar), then they can effectively discount that review as it’s not about the story itself.

I’ve also seen 1-star reviews for other authors that state something like:

Absolutely loved it. One of the best books I’ve ever read. Can’t wait for the next

In this case, the reader has clearly misunderstood and clicked on the wrong end of the rating scale. Oops. But, again, a prospective reader looking at reviews as part of their decision-making will see this and be able to discount that 1-star rating too.

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Image by Tumisu from Pixabay

But when a 1-star rating simply appears without a review, who does this help?

  • It doesn’t help the author because it brings down their ratings and gives them nothing to work with
  • It doesn’t help prospective readers because there’s no information to support the rating and factor into their buying decision
  • And, actually, it doesn’t help the person who left the rating because they haven’t had their rant!

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Image by an_photos from Pixabay

I therefore find myself mystified as to why this system would be introduced by Amazon.

Maybe there is a case for just leaving a rating on certain products. For example, if you ordered a pack of 12 x Bic biros, does that really warrant you having to write a review? They’re mass-produced pens. What more can be said? Either you can write with it or you can’t. But for books, is this really an improvement? I’d suggest not but I’d very much welcome your thoughts.

I’m concerned that it opens the system up for abuse. When someone places a review, their Amazon identifier comes up. Sometimes this is their real name but, more often than not, this is an identity they’ve created for their reviews like glitterunicorn or loves2read. Either way, we have no idea who these people are and the unspoken rule is that we don’t communicate with reviewers, even to thank them, but they do have some form of identity on the system and, if curious, we can see what else they’ve reviewed and maybe take comfort that they never give high ratings for books or they clearly don’t enjoy a certain type of book. However, when they just leave a rating, they’re completely anonymous – we just know the rating and nothing about the source – and this surely opens up the opportunity for an individual with an axe to grind to randomly give a low rating to an author they dislike or even of whom they’re jealous whilst appearing completely invisible on the system.

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On Tuesday, I shared the above tweet to say that 35 of the 36 reviews on Amazon were 5-star. Is it a coincidence that, within two days, an anonymous 1-star rating appeared (bearing in mind it usually takes a couple of days for ratings/reviews to materialise)? Yes, quite possibly. In fact, I hope it is. But I wouldn’t be an author if my mind didn’t work overtime and constantly ask ‘what if…?’ What if someone decided to take me down a peg or two after that tweet? What if someone was sitting there saying, ‘Nearly all 5-star? Well, not anymore. Ha ha ha ha ha!’ I just don’t know. I’d like to think that nobody could be so cruel but we live in a world full of hatred and unkindness exacerbated by keyboard warriors and trolls who don’t think about the impact their words might have on others. Or don’t care.

Can I just emphasise that I’m not upset at receiving a 1-star rating (she writes through the blur of tears before ripping open her second box of tissues for the day). After all, 36 readers disagree. I’m just a bit bewildered by Amazon’s change to allow ratings instead of reviews. Please do pop a comment below and let me know what you think.

Edit: I meant to say something which I put on my FB post about this earlier and that there may well be a whole pile of positives to this change that I’m simply not thinking of because I’m too blinkered by the 1-star review. Huge thanks to Shalini, a prolific reader and reviewer who has been so supportive of my writing for giving another perspective on this. It’s well worth reading her comments for an alternative take (click on the option at the top of this post to see comments).

Jessica xx

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Image by Ka Young Seo from Pixabay

Sharon Booth is my very first guest. Eek!

Welcome along to my very first guest slot! I’m very excited to welcome my good writing friend, Sharon Booth. I met Sharon about two years ago after my writing friend, Alys, connected with her on Twitter. We’ve met up regularly to eat cake and talk about all things writing-related. We invited her to join The Write Romantics last year and have been very excited to be part of her writing journey.

It’s been two months since she released her debut novel, ‘There Must Be An Angel’ so it seemed like a great time to invite her onto the blog and explore what’s been going on since her launch, and a whole lot more.

Over to Sharon …

Thank you very much for having me as the first guest on your blog, Jessica. I’m honoured to be here!

picture of mag for Jessica's blogIt’s been two months since There Must Be An Angel was launched. What’s happened during that time?

Quite a lot! I’ve been very lucky to attract some really positive reviews, which have boosted my confidence and made it all worthwhile. I’ve had messages posted on my Facebook wall, and my writer’s page, from people thanking me for writing the book and telling me how much they loved it. I really wasn’t expecting total strangers to go to all that trouble. It’s amazing. My work colleagues have been really supportive, buying the book and talking about it in the office, and one of the bosses is always asking how it’s going and congratulating me. My mother actually said she was proud of me. I never thought I’d hear her say that! I had a mention in the food and drink supplement of the May edition of Yorkshire Life, as there was a feature about Art of Mallow, the gourmet marshmallow company who inspired me when I was writing Angel. I’d got in touch with the owner, Philippa Quayle, and asked if she minded me mentioning that her company was the inspiration for Eliza’s mallow-making venture, and she was lovely. She even donated bags of marshmallows as prizes for my Facebook launch party, and then she talked about Angel in her feature for Yorkshire Life. I gave Angel away for free for five days and over seven hundred copies were downloaded in that time. Since publication day, I’ve been getting the second Kearton Bay novel, A Kiss from a Rose, ready for editing, written a novella, and started work on book three in the series.

What’s the nicest thing that anyone has said about Angel?

I’ve been very lucky, as I’ve only heard nice things about it! I’ve had people say that it made them want to visit the area that Angel is set in, as I’d really brought the place to life in their imaginations, which is lovely. People have said that the characters and dialogue are realistic and that they really warmed to Eliza and were rooting for her. One said she wanted to climb into the pages of the book and punch Harry! Another said I’d gone straight on her list of favourite authors. I’ve been really touched and surprised by how involved people have got in the story. It’s a wonderful feeling. I have to say, though, that the nicest thing was said by my daughter. She doesn’t read books as she always insists she just can’t get into them and can’t concentrate long enough. She read Angel from cover to cover in less than a day, and was so full of enthusiasm about it afterwards, wanting to know more about the characters and what was going to happen next, that it made me quite tearful!

Angel cover for Jessica's blogWhat’s been the most unexpected or challenging thing to happen since the launch?

Waiting for the first reviews was absolutely terrifying. I was so scared that people would hate it. I also got quite obsessed with sales and Amazon rankings. I quickly got over all that, though. There’s no point worrying about it, as the book can be riding high one day and plummeting the next. Besides, I never expected to sell a lot of books first time out. I’m in this for the long haul. It’s quite a shock to learn that, just because you’ve had a book published, the world doesn’t change. When you’re dreaming of seeing your book in print, you think it will be the biggest thing to ever happen to you. It’s surprising how quickly you realise that life goes on and not many people really know or care that you’re a published author. You still have to go to work and trail round the shops for something for dinner. No lounging on a chaise longue, eating luxury chocolates, dictating the next book to a willing secretary, after all.

Do you tell people you’re an author or do you, like so many writers out there, struggle to admit that you write?

I never say I’m an author, though we had a new lady start at work and she asked me what I would be doing at the weekend and I replied, as usual, working. She asked me where I worked at the weekends and one of our colleagues called, ‘She’ll be writing. Sharon’s an author!’ I went very red, I can tell you. I still feel uncomfortable saying I’m a writer. I don’t know why.

rhb for jessica's blogYou describe Kearton Bay beautifully. It’s a fictional version of North Yorkshire’s Robin Hood’s Bay. Would you like to live there?

Kearton Bay or Robin Hood’s Bay? I love the inhabitants of Kearton Bay and would absolutely love to live there in an ideal world. I don’t actually know anyone in Robin Hood’s Bay, although I have joined some Bay Facebook groups and one of the residents very kindly gave me permission to use his wonderful photographs of the village, which I’ve shared on Pinterest. I’ve visited Robin Hood’s Bay several times now, and it’s stunningly beautiful, and absolutely full of character. However, it’s packed with tourists in peak season and I’m not sure I could cope with that! It’s also extremely hilly, and, with my dodgy knees, it’s quite challenging. The area is gorgeous, though, and there are several coastal villages that aren’t as busy as RHB that would make a more comfortable alternative. Maybe if I win the lottery…
How did you come up with the idea for Angel?

I wanted to write about a woman who was forced out of her comfort zone. Someone who’d been sleep-walking through her life, accepting second best for so long that she’d stopped noticing, until she was jolted awake and made to look at the reality. I wanted to know how she would cope. Would she sink or swim? How would she deal with starting again? How would she manage if she had to leave behind her home and family, and everything that was comfortable, to go to a strange place, and meet new people? Would she be thrown into panic? Or would she find a strength she never knew she had, and rebuild her life? The book centres on Eliza’s search for her father, but, initially, Eliza went to Kearton Bay for a different reason entirely. As the theme of fathers and daughters grew, with Harry and Amy’s failing relationship, and the strength of the bond between Gabriel and Lexi, I began to realise that what was missing was Eliza’s own relationship with her father. So I rewrote the beginning and the book quickly took shape from there. In searching for her father, Eliza is also searching for herself, trying to discover who she really is and what she wants from her life. Of course, being me, I saw the funny side of things, too, so, although there’s a bit of soul-searching and some sadness, there’s a lot of laughter and a good sprinkling of humour to ease Eliza’s journey.

Angel contains a wonderful cast of characters. Who would you snog, marry, avoid?

What a fabulous question! It’s very tricky, though, as I think my answers would be different if you were talking about the characters across the whole series. I’ll stick to the characters who feature in Angel. I’d snog Will because he’s kind, sweet, a really, really good kisser, and I’m terribly fond of him. He’s got a lot of growing up to do, but by the end of the series he’ll be a serious contender for marriage. I’d avoid Harry, because, in spite of his twinkling eyes and good looks he’s an absolute rogue and best kept away from. I’d probably marry Gabriel, because he’s gorgeous, sincere, decent, and has a passionate streak behind that cool façade. Ask me again when the series ends and you’ll probably find I’ve chosen to marry someone else, because, although I’m a little bit in love with all my heroes, one of them is extra special to me…

If you could be best friends with any of the female characters, who would it be and why?

I have to admit, I love all my female characters and could happily be friends with any of them. Well, perhaps not Melody Bird or the awful Michelle…Eliza is a girl after my own heart, especially with her love for Maltesers and her complete inability to iron clothes. Rose is down-to-earth, funny and warm-hearted, and you know exactly where you stand with her. Lexi is lovely but she’s too young for me, and is far too leggy and gorgeous to be around, without losing what little confidence I have left. Sophie is kind, but a bit interfering, and always thinks she knows best. Then there’s Rhiannon, who is certainly interesting and very good with the advice. Although I’d have to watch her around my husband…Hmm, maybe not, then. I’ll go with Rose, because she’s good for a laugh, but always on your side and great with practical advice as well as tea and sympathy.

Harry presents a property programme. What’s your favourite property programme and why?

I watch loads of property programmes. I have a guilty addiction to Escape to the Country because of the locations of the houses, but I have to confess to getting a bit irritated by the constant whines of “Oh, the kitchen’s a bit small” when it’s the size of my entire house! I’ve been watching a lot of Country House Rescue for research purposes lately, and find that strangely addictive. I’m not sure it counts as a property programme, though? I loved the Sarah Beeny programme, Restoration Nightmare, as Rise Hall is only a few miles from where I live, and I really like Sarah’s presenting style and admire what she’s done to the house. I also love A Place in the Sun: Home or Away. I always root for the UK location, and my heart always sinks when I see how fabulous the houses abroad are! I probably like Location, Location, Location best, mainly because Phil and Kirstie’s relationship is so funny and they’re both so likeable. Also, the budgets are a bit more realistic in a lot of cases.

Rose for Jessica's blogAngel is the first book in a series. What else can we expect, and when?

You can expect three more books. The second in the series, A Kiss from a Rose, will be out in September. Here’s the blurb:

In spite of managing to get a black eye at her best friend’s wedding, Rose MacLean knows she’s never had it so good.

As a partner in a thriving business, her financial problems are easing, and her eldest daughter has finally found employment, while her youngest is doing well at school.

But Rose’s life never seems to run smoothly for long, and, sure enough, her eldest daughter has soon walked out of her job, while her youngest appears to have had a personality transplant. To make matters worse, her mother is back on the scene, and she seems to be reliving her misspent youth with her oily-haired, horse-faced ex, Alec Thoroughgood.

With her best friend preoccupied with the arduous task of baby-making, Rose finds herself relying more and more on the quiet Flynn Pennington-Rhys, who seems to be everyone’s hero. But Flynn has his own problems, and as events take an unexpected turn, Rose realises that she may not always be able to rely on him.

Will the quiet man come through for her? Will her daughters ever sort themselves out? And will Rose ever get her bedroom back from her mother, or is she destined for a life on the sofa?

I’m hoping that the third and fourth books will be out next year. There will be lots of excitement ahead for some familiar characters, some new characters will arrive at Kearton Bay, stirring passions and causing mayhem, and there’ll be weddings, births, village events, surprising relationships, redemption, a legend, a mystery, and just a touch of magic!

You can see pictures of Robin Hood’s Bay, the inspiration for Kearton Bay, and other things which inspired Sharon while writing There Must Be An Angel here:

https://uk.pinterest.com/sharonbooth1/there-must-be-an-angel/

Find out more about Sharon at http://sharonbooth.co.uk/

Follow her on Twitter as @Sharon_Booth1

Or like her Facebook Page https://www.facebook.com/sharonbooth.writer

A week of being Jessica … Rabbit

Last Monday, I posted my new pen name of Jessica Redland. A big decision but it felt right. It’s been a whirlwind of activity since then. I moved the blog over to my new name which is quite a challenge for someone who isn’t always the best with technology. Trying to change my Gravatar was probably the trickiest bit because I thought I’d changed it all yet it still kept appearing on the page as my old one. Grr. Someone solved that. Twitter was surprisingly easy and Facebook was about setting up a brand new profile off my new email address so that was easy too.

Remembering to log on and off between names is difficult, especially for someone with a memory like a sieve. But I’m getting there.

My husband keeps calling me Jessica Rabbit which amuses me greatly. (If you don’t know who she is, click here). There are several comparisons I can make to Jessica Rabbit – the name, the red hair and the curves. Unfortunately the red hair isn’t real but out of a bottle in a desperate attempt to hide the grey and the curves are about four dress-sizes too big! I started a very, very, VERY strict diet yesterday so hopefully it won’t be long before it’s three dress-sizes too big, then two …

This name-changing thing has caught on as another fellow-Write Romantic has decided to change her writing name too. You can read about it here. Loving the new name of Harriet James. Very writer-ly! Out of the nine of us, four have pen-names and one writes in her maiden name so we’re on very common ground here.

Names aren’t the only thing that have changed for The Write Romantics. We launched a new-look blog which has received some great comments.

Have a great week 🙂

Jessica xx