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"Manuscripts don't burn"
- Mikhail Bulgakov

Hi, I'm horror and science fiction author Steve Kozeniewski (pronounced: "causin' ooze key.") Welcome to my blog! You can also find me on Facebook, Twitter, Goodreads, and Amazon. You can e-mail me here, join my mailing list here, or request an e-autograph here. Free on this site you can listen to me recite one of my own short works, "The Thing Under the Bed."

Friday, April 11, 2014

A Reader's Guide to Why I'm Such a Dick All the Time

If you know me in real life or follow me on any form of social media I've probably begged you at least once to review one of my books, BRAINEATER JONES and THE GHOUL ARCHIPELAGO.



Hang on just a minute, please! Look, I've seen the error of my ways. I won't beg you anymore. Well, no doubt you realize, probably instantaneously, that that's a lie. But I do think you at least deserve an explanation as to why I would ask. You know, I learned in the army that "Shut up and do it!" is a lot less effective as a motivator than "Here's why I'm asking." And yet I never applied that rule in my writing life (go figure.) So, here's me politely explaining to you why...



Readers probably don't know this, or if they do, they don't think about it, but Amazon is a whole new animal in the history of commerce. It's kind of like a combination of McDonald's, Alcoholics Anonymous, and the New York Times. (How's that for a weird metaphor?)

It's like McDonald's because it's the biggest bossest badassest son of a bitch in the world. Sure Burger King "competes" with McDonald's in the same sense that an infant could have, technically speaking, entered the ring and "competed" with Smokin' Joe Frazier (may he rest in peace.) But McDonald's is so wildly, exponentially more powerful than its next closest competitors it's almost laughable to consider someone "competing" with it.

Amazon is also like AA in that it's the only game in town. When I worked in the substance abuse clinic the social workers used to tell me that AA wasn't always perfect for everyone (NA or Al-Anon or something else entirely might be more appropraite), but it was what existed. There was an infrastructure there. Any city in the world you could pick up a phone book and find AA meetings. Just like Amazon is what is there. It's where the vendors are, where the merchandise is, and where the buyers are.

And, finally, Amazon is like the New York Times (or it might be more accurate to say that it's supplanted the NYT) as the arbiter of taste. Whereas people used to look to the NYT Review of Books to see what was legitimately good, and trusted that opinion, people now look to Amazon reviews to tell them what's good or not.

Long story short: Amazon is large and powerful enough to drive both the market AND public opinion, so what goes on there is, for good or ill, really important to authors.


So, the last section may have seemed a bit patronizing. As a reader, or just as a consumer in general, you probably already know Amazon is the Grand High Poobah of more or less all commerce today. But this next part doesn't really make sense unless you know that first.

So, taking into account that you're probably going to buy things on Amazon, it helps to know that Amazon uses algorithms to determine what you see there. Like, EVERYTHING you see there.

So, lets say you want to buy a copy of THE GHOUL ARCHIPELAGO (natch!) and you go to Amazon and type in "ghoul." So, based on what's popular, as well as your shopping and browsing history, Amazon is going to decide what to show you. Yours may be slightly different, but when I search for "ghoul" I get the 2013 movie, an album called "We Came for the Dead" by a band called Ghoul, our good friend Brian Keene's novel, and seven others, but not what I was actually looking for.

Now, this is especially weird because I can tell you right now that as the author I go to my poor book's Amazon page several times a day to check sales. So if the algorithm was working by my browsing history alone, BJ and TGA should jump to the top even when I make searches for "My Little Pony." But it DOESN'T. Amazon's algorithm, though super-secretive, is based partially on browsing history, partially on popularity, and partially on quantity of reviews. (Note I don't say "quality" of reviews...but we'll cover that in a second.)

Reviews enter into the math to determine what comes up when you do a blanket Amazon search, not to mention what it will recommend to you and others (which, surprisingly, considering we don't like to think of ourselves as affected by internet ads, is a BIG driver of sales.) Amazon has this shit down to a science. They know what you like to buy, what you like to peruse, and what, if it happens to mention to you, you will click on. But it won't recommend shit to you that isn't popular, and popularity is at least partially determined by number of reviews.


I suspect some people, good-meaning people, possibly even my friends and family, don't want to review my books because their mothers taught them "if you don't have anything good to say don't say anything at all." In other words, people who might otherwise review my book don't want to either be dishonest (5 stars! it didn't make me want to retch every second!) or to hurt my feelings (1 star! don't divorce me, honey, but you're a terrible writer!) This may seem counterintuitive, but bad reviews are good. Repeat it with me now: BAD REVIEWS ARE GOOD.

I don't have that many (although I'm hoping this blogpost will change all that) but the bad and mediocre reviews that I do have lend credence to my good reviews. Sound weird? It works like this. Only about 1% of people who actually read a book will bother to review it. In an ideal world where I didn't solicit reviews (this is NOT an ideal world and I DO solicit reviews, but more on that later) you could judge my sales numbers roughly by my review numbers. 1 review? 100 sales. 100 reviews? 10,000 sales. And so forth.

Having reviews, therefore, implies popularity. However, Amazon and its clever algorithm system are not totally ignorant. They know that I'm going to ask my friends and family for reviews. And they also know that friends and family are most likely going to give me 5-stars for the reason I mentioned above (they don't want to hurt my feelings, theoretically.) So Amazon's algorithm treates 10 x 5-star reviews not as 1000 sales to strangers but as 10 sales to people who are obviously friends and family.

But a 1-star review? AH HA! A 1-star review is obviously NOT left by a friend or family member (so goes Amazon's logic.) Obviously that reprents 100 actual people, because actual people sometimes hate shit!

Now, like I said, this is counterituitive, but it makes sense from a certain perspective. Think of it this way: Kim Kardashian is one of the most POPULAR celebrities alive. Virtually EVERYONE in America knows who she is. And a huge percentage of people (probably disproportionately so) hate her. She's SO popular that even people who wouldn't normally care know her enough to hate her. It's the same way with books. You haven't really made it 'til you have haters, and Amazon takes that into account. So if you've been holding back on giving me a review to spare my feelings, please don't! You'd be doing me a bigger favor than you know by trashing my book.


And here we get to the tricky part. I think I've outlined pretty well so far how Amazon works, why it's important to have reviews, and what reviews mean to me as a writer. (Sales! Legitimacy! Quitting my day job!) But here's where we get into the morally grey area of ethics.

As you know, there's nothing preventing me from creating a hundred Yahoo accounts, and with those Yahoo accounts creating a hundred Amazon accounts, and with those hundred Amazon accounts giving myself as many 5-star (or, bearing in mind the last section, 1-star) reviews as I want. Not only do some authors do that, but they also pay for reviews (yes, there are such services) to speed up the whole cheating process. And in the slightly less reprehensible but still kind of fucked-up arena, some authors will trade quid pro quo with one another and copy-paste canned reviews of one another's work without reading it first.

Now, I'm absolutely delighted when another author (especially a famous one!) reviews my work, but I don't want it to be because I paid him or her, or because I traded some kind of tit-for-tat "Hey, let's not really read each other's work but just give it a fiver anyway" game.

I want every single review I receive to be legit. Now, bearing that in mind, there are only two ethical ways to solicit reviews. The first is exactly what I'm doing right now, asking people that I know have already read my book to consider writing an honest review of it. The second is to ask a professional or semi-professional reviewer to write a review. (In this case it's considered polite to offer a courtesy copy of your book, just like you would comp a food critic if he ate at your restaurant. That's why sometimes you'll see a caveat like, "The author sent me a free copy but this will not affect my review in any way.") Beyond those two options everything else is dirty pool. So I guess what I'm saying is, I want to do this the right way, and to do that I'm relying on the largesse of you, my readers.


Getting reviews is brutally hard. It's REALLY REALLY tough, people. Some of you reading this are my best friends in the world and my closest family members and YOU HAVEN'T WRITTEN ME A REVIEW. I get it. You've got shit going on. Maybe I've never asked you explicitly. Or maybe I have and you blew me off. Or maybe I have and you didn't want to give me a bad review (in which case, see section 3 above.) But let me outline this for you real briefly.

I mentioned above that one legitimate way to get reviews is to solicit professional reviewers. So, when I'm soliciting reviews, I track who I've contacted to make sure I don't double tap or, God forbid, spam any reviewers. Here's a quick breakdown:

To date I've asked 172 reviewers to read BRAINEATER JONES. 53 (31%) have said yes (I'm including those who declined to actually review but did agree to an interview, guest post, or some other form of free advertisement, because I also appreciate when reviewers take the time and energy to feature me on their sites, in their magazines, etc.) Of those 53, 22 (41% of those who agreed, 13% of those solicited) have actually followed through.

I've asked 88 reviewers to read THE GHOUL ARCHIPELAGO. Using the same broad terms, 33 (38%) have said yes. Of those 33, 7 (21% of those who agreed, 8% of those solicited) have actually followed through.

Pretty grim numbers, eh? And those are the professionals. Remember I said before about 1% of random readers will actually write you a review? This shit is like pulling teeth.


What I'm hoping with this post is not to berate you, but like I said at the beginning, to actually break down for you why, exactly, authors harp and harp and harp on Amazon reviews. Hell, I appreciate that you read my book. I appreciate if you bought my book and didn't read it. I appreciate if you read all the free content on my blog, never buy my books, and never review anything. It's all good. It's all different levels of support.

But I do wonder if sometimes the reason why authors get so wrapped around the axle about not getting reviews is that none of them have ever bothered to explain to their readers why it's important. Hence this post. If you're a reader, I hope you learned something, and if you're really feeling sporting, here are easy links to review BRAINEATER JONES or THE GHOUL ARCHIPELAGO. If you're a writer, feel free to share this post as widely as you like, or riff on it on your own (or tell my why I'm an asshole in the comments.) It's all good! Thanks for listening. :)

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