Polishing the Diamond

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I participated in an independent author review exchange!

The thought behind these things is that the more reviews you have on Amazon, the more books you sell. Or at least, the more discoverability you have. I shy away from review exchanges because the exchanges tend to foster hostility between authors and because reviews don’t equate to sales. A ton-crap amount of bad writing exists in the indie publishing world: people dreaming of quick-fast mega money; people who have never bothered with a pen until after the indie-author craze hit, until Hugh Howey made a gazillion million bazillion dollars; people who think they are amazing writers, the next Great American Novel a few sentences away from their fingertips, never mind they wouldn’t know a gerund from a deverbal if either noun bit their ankles, and they have zero plans on exploring the language, and we as readers wade  through their crap-shavings. The indie market is the new slush pile. No longer do agent and publisher have to plow their way through all of this crap because we readers, we do that for them: case in point: Hugh Howey who made a gazillion million bazillion dollars. For a lot of people, self-publishing is a desperate last-ditch effort at hope.

There is the high expectation, almost a requirement, the unwritten rule that you always always rate the book five stars. Four stars is frowned upon but tolerated. You will be eviscerated if you hand out only three stars. I’m not sure what happens if you rank a book with a one or two star review. A wood chipper accident? So yeah, I participated in an author review exchange, and I had my reasons but none to do with increasing my wallet’s width.

First, the exchange was titled “The Honest Review Exchange,” and there were no reciprocal reviews. That is, George R.R. Martin did not review my book Banana Sandwich because I reviewed his book Dying of the Light. But Zadie Smith did review my book because I did not review White Teeth. So when Zadie decided my book deserved three stars, I couldn’t in turn give her a three star ranking just because she ticked me off. And, when I told George his book deserved two stars, because I was giving him less than three stars, he had the option to tell me not to post the review. Of course, all of this is on the honor system. I can’t stop anyone from one-star spamming.

Second, a friend asked me to be a part of the review exchange. “We need good readers,” she said. She described the exchange as a very public workshop, and I thought the exercise would act as a warm-up for the MFA. And originating from the exchange, especially with people I said I was unable to provide a review above two or three stars for, I’ve had a lot of online conversations about what makes good writing. What I discovered through these conversations has been disheartening—comments like: what does it matter as long as the reader gets the gist, but I was told I needed dialogue and a lot of it, everyone is wrong, it is just a book and you should get a life, you don’t know what you are talking about. Oh, and: you are trying to sabotage me. This is the definition of victim-hood.

I ask them: how are your sales? They don’t answer because money is the real social proof, not the number of five star reviews they receive. And my day-job pays me to teach people how to write. Although sometimes, I feel I don’t have much room to speak. I sell a few books a month. My highest monthly royalty check has been $5.45. One year, I think I made $100, enough to keep me in cigarettes and coffee, though my wife says I need to open an Acorn account and forget about the smokes.

Over on the Kindle Board a nifty conversation about how much cash a successful indie author can make, someone suggested $400 annually. That’s two zeros, not six. And so, if I go with that number, I’m not top-tier, not mid-level, but fairly dang successful, and if you can start talking about investing, if you can keep up with your cigarette habit, that’s real, tangible hard cash, that’s money that matters, that’s social proof.

On the other hand, I do personally know someone who received a six-figure check for his novel from a trade publisher and I hate him. NO! I don’t hate him. That’s not what I mean. Not what I mean at all!! Okay, maybe it is a little bit because he is such an awesome, awesome writer; the cake with the bam. And I’m like, how the hell did you write that? The last twenty pages took me forever to read because I kept having to wipe away the tears. Please please tell me all your secrets! He mainly rolls his eyes.

I turned to self-publishing because I took my first book to one agent, and she said, “Well, you know what you’re doing; be patient though and keep working.” And I thought, but it’s fucking done. And then…and then I told everyone a very different story: I told people that the agent said Wasteland was too far out, too beyond mainstream, that there was never ever going to be an audience for the book, and that’s why I self-published, to prove to people I could get an audience for the book. Then came the second book: Banana Sandwich.

Authors self-publish for different reasons and I’m not here to poo-poo on their parade; I’m not here to say the indie scene is wrong, it’s certainly been good to me, but the reason why I self-published, if I really want to be honest, I was scared.

I was scared I wasn’t good enough. I was scared of seeing my novels in bookstores. I was scared of success. All I’ve known for so long has been failure. Everything I ever tried to make money at always fell short—pizza delivery, truck-driving, factory work, marketing, real estate. And the only thing I did ever succeed at was school. And I succeeded at school whilst suffering from undiagnosed, untreated sleep apnea, which looking back at the whole thing explains a whole hell of a lot as to why I was failing at so many damn things. I was falling asleep on the job!

Which brings me to my question: when do you know you are ready? When do you stop putting crap out in the world and polish the diamond? When do you stop being a victim? When do you write, and I mean really write—write with your gut and your heart and your soul and every part of your being and create.

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