A giveaway backfires

I recently gifted a print copy of my novel Fatal Feverfew to the winner of my latest Goodreads Giveaway. Soon afterwards she posted a rating on the website, giving it 1 star and commenting “the writing was dull, the plot was poorly written, and the characters were extremely unlikeable and boring. I really struggled to finish this book.”

In my younger days I would have been depressed for weeks after reading a review like that. Now I am more philosophical, reminding myself that you can’t please all of the people all of the time. All the previous novels that I put through the giveaway programme received 4 or 5 star ratings, and I can’t believe this latest one is so much worse than the rest. I do wonder whether someone who has to “struggle to finish a book” would do better to abandon it and move on to something they enjoy reading – this is my own policy now, and I don’t write a review unless I can say something positive.

So, my latest giveaway has backfired as a marketing method – or has it? A day or two after that damning review was published, a little peak in sales of both Fatal Feverfew and some of my other books showed up online. Maybe this proves the truth of the saying that there’s no such thing as bad publicity.

Here are some suggestions about how to cope with bad reviews.

The lure of the murder mystery

I’ve always enjoyed reading crime fiction, especially the more benign kind of murder mystery epitomised by Agatha Christie’s books. Old-fashioned though these may be, they are still popular today. I think several elements contribute to their enduring appeal: An intriguing puzzle, with a credible solution that is not too obvious, although it could in theory have been worked out from the clues hidden in the text. An ending that demonstrates the triumph of good over evil, and the restoration of justice. Descriptions of crime and criminal psychology that manage to be both sympathetic and entertaining, and never sordid or sensational. Perhaps the universal fascination with death. I could never aspire to anything near the standard set by Agatha Christie, but her influence may be apparent in Fatal Feverfew, one of the books I wrote about thirty years ago but did not publish until now.

The main action takes place in an isolated healing retreat in England’s west country. Lucia, accompanied by her husband and cat, arrives there to recuperate from a recent illness only to find that she is suspected of poisoning their hostess. Lucia reluctantly takes on the role of detective and, with the help of the local doctor, succeeds in uncovering the true course of events.

It can be purchased online as an ebook in various formats from Smashwords.com; and also from the Amazon website for your country of residence, either as a paperback or for a Kindle device.



The portrayal of illness in fiction

I spent most of my working life as a doctor, so it is not surprising that medical topics often find their way into my fiction writing. Looking back at my completed novels I recognise the themes which have arisen, sometimes more than once: conflicts between mainstream and alternative medicine, overlap between “organic disease” and “functional symptoms”, how serious illness can bring about changes in mood, attitudes and relationships for better or worse, the scope for weakness and corruption in the healthcare professions.

Books, films and television dramas with a medical theme have a widespread appeal. In addition to their entertainment value, when well researched and sensitively presented they serve an educational function, and help to reduce the fear and stigma associated with certain diagnoses whether physical or mental.

There is a risk that fiction with a medical content will distress some readers, especially those who suffer from the conditions in question themselves. Information which was accurate at the time the book was written may have become out of date later on. The use of labels and stereotypes, black humour, or gratuitous sordid detail which promotes morbid fascination with sickness and disability, may cause offence. If the characters are based on real people, or even if they are not, medical authors may be accused of breaching patients’ confidentiality, or of libelling their colleagues.

I don’t know how far I have managed to avoid these pitfalls in my own novels. Most of the illnesses mentioned are ones which I felt entitled to write about because I have experienced them through family, friends or patients, or in myself.

Accentuate the positive

I’ve recently been visiting sites such as https://bookreviewdirectory.wordpress.com/ and http://www.theindieview.com/indie-reviewers/  in search of bloggers who might like to review my novels. In their guidelines for authors, some of them state that they will only post about those books to which they can give a good rating, while others warn that they may include negative reviews as well as positive ones.
I tend to favour the first policy, although I do think that an honest and helpful review usually needs to include a few points of constructive criticism. Reviews which consist of undiluted praise may have been paid for, or written by friends or relatives of the author.
Negative reviews can be devastating for authors, especially sensitive or inexperienced ones, but they are often highly subjective. Even prizewinning best sellers are never universally admired, but receive a handful of damning comments and low ratings. From the reviewer’s angle it can be a waste of time and energy to read through to the end of something boring, distasteful or poorly edited, though there are a few who derive perverse satisfaction from trashing a book. A strongly worded negative review can actually attract readers, whereas if the book was really all that bad it would have been kinder to ignore it and let it lapse into obscurity.
For all these reasons, I prefer not to post ratings of less than 3 stars or reviews which are predominantly negative, even though I do find that negative reviews can be the the easiest sort to write. When I dislike a book I can usually give a specific reason for my opinion. For example, novels containing descriptions of cruelty to animals are my pet hate (no pun intended). I recently gave up on a thriller in which the F-word appeared several times on almost every page. And an autobiography which should have been fascinating was, in my opinion, marred by the self-pitying tone of its author. In contrast, when I do like a book I am often unable to explain exactly why, and find myself reduced to using bland general terms such as “interesting”, “original”, “gripping” or “uplifting”.
For the record, looking back at my list of 5-star ratings on Goodreads, a few of the titles which I have enjoyed reading or re-reading lately have included psychological thrillers (The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins, The Children Act by Ian McEwan, Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn), biographies (Bach: Music in the Castle of Heaven by John Eliot Gardiner, The Last Enemy by Richard Hillary, Bomber Boys by Patrick Bishop, Noel Streatfeild by Angela Bull), and books about holistic healing (You are the Placebo by Joe Dispenza, Dying to be Me by Anita Moorjani).

Quality vs Quantity

Indie authors are often advised to “keep adding new content” by publishing three or four new titles per year, as well as writing frequent posts on their blogs and social networking sites among other marketing activities. There may be a commercial justification for this – “the more books you have published, the more you are likely to sell” – but is it in the best interests of the profession in the long term?

Few writers can really have enough talent, or time, to generate such a large output without compromising the standard of their work. The market is already flooded with self-published books, many of which are poorly written and edited and contain recycled material. As a result some of the more excellent and original ones, which deserve to be widely read and have the potential to become classics, are easily overlooked.

It’s wonderful to see so many opportunities for today’s indie authors to get their work “out there”, but the process is so easy and affordable that it is tempting to use it too casually. “Keep on writing” is certainly sound advice for those wanting to develop their skills, but “keep on publishing” may not be.

Having said all this, I admit that I published three books of my own in 2014 and have another coming out soon. However, they had been many years in gestation, and I won’t be continuing with this rate of production.

Reviving forgotten manuscripts

Although the market continues to be flooded with self-published books, I understand that the torrent is slowing down. Maybe this is because, having realised that indie authorship does not provide an easy path to best-seller status, many less committed writers are giving up. Another reason could be that the backlog of old manuscripts, which had been rejected for traditional publication but can now be published by authors themselves, is starting to clear. Having taught myself the basic ropes by self-publishing Persons not Diseases and my trilogy of Three Novellas I am now looking at reviving my own backlog.

The first adult novel I ever wrote is over thirty years old. I recently rescued its faded typescript from the drawer where it has been languishing all this time, and have been converting it to electronic format. It is a gently satirical mystery / romance set in an English mental asylum in the 1980s, and in many ways it describes a forgotten world, for so many aspects of life have changed. Today’s readers may find it hard to believe that, for example, staff used to smoke and drink on duty, did not have computers or mobile phones, or that orders from male doctors were so readily obeyed by nurses and patients alike. Parts of the text seem quite embarrassing or outrageous to my more sedate older self – should I defer to political correctness and tone them down? Should I publish the book at all?

Even after all these years it is difficult for me to look objectively at this first novel, remembering so clearly as I do the passionate enthusiasm with which I wrote it and my bitter disappointment when a series of rejection letters arrived in the post. I am hoping that a few trusted people will agree to read it and give me some kind but honest feedback.

Discounts and giveaways?

I have mixed feelings about self-published books being given away free of charge. This practice seems to devalue all the hard work of their authors, and can perpetuate the belief that they are inferior to books from traditional publishers. Although a free ebook will usually get far more downloads than one which carries a price tag, many of these will be from undiscerning readers who are not really interested in the content and may never even look at it at all. But in some circumstances, offering free books is worthwhile.

Some of the authors who write about self-help, educational or spiritual topics have altruistic motives, and would rather reach the widest possible audience than make any money. My little Bach flower book, which has always been free, continues to get thousands of downloads per year.

Turning to the profit motive, free books can be a “loss leader” to promote sales of other titles. This easy-to-use method of marketing is particularly recommended in the case of a series; readers who download the first one for free, and enjoy it, may go on to purchase the later ones too. For the reasons given above I am reluctant to use this strategy, though I may change my mind one day. But when sales of my own fiction books were flagging after Christmas, I decided to experiment with reducing their prices: currently the three novellas are just 0.99 USD each, and the box set is 2.99 USD. Details can be found on my Smashwords and Amazon author pages.

A variant of free promotion which I do like using is the Goodreads Giveaway programme, in which the print version of my Three Novellas will be included until 11th March. ( Click here to enter the draw for a free copy.) Winners in this programme are encouraged to post reviews on the Goodreads site, and they often do – hopefully these will be positive reviews, though even negative ones are better for publicity purposes than none at all.

Lastly, there is the option of sending free copies to journals and book blogs for review. One of the things I miss from my traditional publishing days is having this done for me, and I have only just started to explore it in my indie publishing career. I know that many professional reviewers are overwhelmed with submissions and cannot deal with them all, so I prefer to approach those who will accept ebooks. Sending out print copies without any promise of a response can prove a costly and futile exercise.