Friday, 14 December 2012

The Importance Of Sock Puppetry

Regular readers will have noticed how I have not been blogging a great deal over the past few months and that various ‘what if?’ postings and stories have disappeared from here to appear in e-books on Amazon. I did this for the simple basis that I was bullied into selling my house at a knock-down price and after months of unemployment I am in a job which pays £8000 per year less than my previous job and £16,000 less than what I was earning in 2010, whilst costs have risen for all of us. I am compelled to live with my parents until I can find a room to rent within a reasonable distance of my work, so that I simply do not spend what I save on rent in travel costs. The only consolation is that I am not being bullied in my current job. However, I am having to put up with the fact that no-one has decided to train me and I have to pick up scraps of how to do things from my colleagues who ration out such knowledge jealously. One told me I had no hope of escaping from this job, which as you can imagine hardly inspired me.

One thing I thought I knew I could do well was write. I certainly write fast and when not depressed or jobless I can turn out 2-3000 words per evening. In a job where despite my colleagues being very busy, I have not been trained in a range of activities and am begging to be given a password to access certain software, I am left trying to appear busy when, in fact, I have very little to do. Thus, me typing away busily at my computer looks reasonable. In addition, as I have commented before: with the KDP system run by Amazon, I found a way to get a number of my novels and collections of essays on sale as e-books. I have sold a variety of these over the past months, the best has had around 400 sales, the worst less than 5. However, they all bring in money, even in small amounts. The system in getting payments from the USA, my main market, is hard. The US government takes 30% at source. Then you get sent a cheque in US$ which costs £6 and takes six weeks to process. However, I have been making around £200 per month, on which I will also have to pay UK tax come April. Obviously my hope was that my sales would increase as I got better known and this monthly amount.

The key challenge for me has proven to be buyer reviews. Back in 2008, I noted how hard it was becoming for sellers when buyers had so much power:  EBay did not collapse but the message boards for sellers show how hard it is for sellers to continue trading, as their account can be suspended after two negative reviews from buyers. Buyers are very aggressive in their comments and get upset about minor issues. Yes, of course, it is right to complain if an item takes weeks to arrive or is damaged. However, some buyers seem to expect things to be teleported across continents to arrive days after they have bought them, with no recognition of the reliability of their postal service. Some US shoppers seem to still believe the UK is part of the USA and are surprised we use a different currency and are on a different continent. One UK seller I know had a customer who bought some greetings cards. Thirty-eight days after they had been sent to her she wrote and complained she had not received them. The seller sent replacements and noted this on the buyer’s feedback. The reason for this is that some buyers are serial ‘non-receivers’ and are simply lying. Just making this statement that a replacement set of cards had been sent, led the buyer not only to leave negative feedback on the seller but also to bombard her with abusive emails.

In the world of online retail the buyer is not just simply ‘always right’ but is also immensely powerful. A single individual can drive a seller out of business on the basis of a petulant attitude. I guess it is of no surprise that I have encountered a similar experience selling e-books on Amazon.

I have to come to the conclusion that I am a very poor writer. Having sold over 500 copies of various books, I have had only three pieces of feedback and all of them are negative. One issue with Kindle sales, as I have been made aware of by those people I know who own them, exclusively middle-aged women, that people will buy stacks of books and never get around to reading many of them. One woman I worked with had 200 books on her Kindle within 3 months of purchasing it. I know that some people buy a set of my books at one time and I can imagine that many are sitting on their Kindles unread. Of course, given my experiences, if they did read them maybe they would be as critical as those people who have provided feedback.

Of the feedback I have received, one reader complained that I had portrayed wartime Finland’s political system wrongly so marked the book down. Another reviewing a different book said that I gave too much detail regarding the alternate outcomes that the ‘what if?’ element was lost. I do not really understand what they meant by that. The worst was on a third book which went into immense detail about how the style of writing was wrong. Being made up of essays from this blog, I had adopted a relaxed, chatty style, which I thought was refreshing and would make the books accessible. However, clearly the opposite was the case and I was condemned for the book being apparently incomprehensible and also with factual errors ‘on every page’.

As I have noted before, on Amazon, a 3-star review will reduce my sales (and I imagine those of other authors too), but two-thirds. The 2-star review I received for the last one mentioned above, not only made the book unsellable but also froze the sales of my other books, just before Christmas when I had hoped sales would be increasing. The number of books sold but then returned, has also jumped up. As a result I have had to withdraw the book for fear of destroying sales of the others. I cannot remove the review. I was told by Amazon I could respond to it, but this turned out not to be true, it kept saying I had to buy my own book in order to respond to a comment on it. Weeks of work has been destroyed by some review someone wrote in their lunch break.

Online reviews are a way of giving value to the facilities websites provide. Every time we buy something we are prompted to comment on the service we have received. In addition, commonly now, for example, with Amazon we are similarly asked to review the quality of the product. It is seen as a necessary part of the online experience. However, we live in a society in which indignation is a cultural norm. We expect anyone supplying us anything whether it is a bed & breakfast guest house, a baker, a bread making machine or a book, to address our own precise personal needs exactly, even without us saying what they are. If anyone falls short of writing a book in the very way we want it at this moment, then we feel it is our right, in fact our duty to get angry and express that anger. This is what makes online reviewing so very hazardous for providers. No-one seems eager to express pleasure at the service or item they have received, such pleasure is taken for granted. No-one bothers with neutral comments. It is simply the feeling of disdain that encourages a purchaser to make the effort to comment.

Yes, it is in the consumers’ interest to show up poorly written books. However, they can be destroyed by someone taking offence to a particular aspect. In one case I saw a book receive a 1-star rating because a new edition had come out with a new cover and the reader had bought this without realising he already owned the book. Rather than accept that he had been careless he put the blame on the author. It is always a challenge when writing counter-factual books as people will often rate them not by the quality of the writing or the analysis but simply whether they agree with the outcomes the book portrays. In theory such feedback should be beneficial in improving quality. Kindle books can easily be taken down, edited and put back up again within 12 hours (if in English). However, there is no point in doing that as the revised book will always carry the black mark of the review of the original version no matter how much you change it. You can ‘unpublish’ and even ‘block’ books on KDP but you can never remove the book from the site. Re-writing the synopsis to say the book is no longer available due to criticism is not accepted either; I have tried.

How does all of this connect to sock puppetry? It comes from comics/satirists who use a sock to make a simple puppet that they then have a kind of ventriloquist’s dialogue with. The most famous one is probably Lamb Chop, a puppet operated by Shari Lewis (1933-98) from 1957 onwards. It is a term which has come to refer to when authors use pseudonyms to write positive reviews of their books online. They can alternatively use friends to do this as well. In September crime author R.J. Ellroy was criticised for using the pseudonyms Jelly Bean and Nicodemus Jones not only to praise his own work but also criticise that of rivals. In 2010 Orlando Figes was charged in the same way and you can find cases going back to John Lott who 2000-3 used the name Mary Rosh to post positive reviews. Thus, it has been a tendency really since the birth of online reviewing; apparently the term goes back to 1993.

Unfortunately for my career as a writer, Amazon seems to have methods to prevent sock puppetry and despite my efforts I cannot create any kind of identity which can even respond to the negative comments that are being put on my books. Even if I could I am not certain that I could counter-balance comments which are so dismissive. Consequently, one-by-one my books are going to be snuffed out from Amazon as someone decided to turn their disdain on each one and end any sales of it. I suppose I have learnt a lesson, that I am not capable of writing for the global English-reading audience; I just do not have the language that people are happy to read. I have tried an easy-going style, that has not worked; I have tried a more serious style, that has not worked. In addition, writing counter-factual books makes me very vulnerable. It only takes me writing that a particular outcome was more or less likely or characterising a particular regime in a specific way to receive a bad review for the entire book. With that the book will no longer be bought, I guess because people judge by the star rating rather than the actual text of the review. I have no intention to go around damaging other authors, as I know how easily even a successful one might be eliminated by bad reviews. The customer has ultimate power because my books are now trapped on Amazon. It is not down to me if I am an author or not, rather this lies in the hands of some bored individual who decides to take against me.

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