Saturday, 20 May 2017

Vocabulary, Dictionaries, And Reading Levels

Image CC0 Public Domain by Greyerbaby on Pixabay

Should Vocabulary Be Dumbed Down In Fiction?

I saw this question in an author group recently: "Since most writers have above-average vocabularies, do you write at your natural level or do you 'dumb it down' to meet the national average of 6th grade readers?"

It's a good question, and made me think. I know some readers like it when they don't recognise a word in a book, and so they check it in a dictionary (or get the e-reader to display a definition), learning a new word in the process.

Other readers hate that, and claim they will give up on a book if it has too many words they don't know. "The writer is showing off," "I don't want to look at a dictionary," and so on.

So what's a writer to do?

Language Level Should Be Appropriate

I think the most important rule is that language should always be appropriate to the character and the scene. If you have a super genius discussing his proposal, then he'd better sound like a super genius discussing his proposal (in which case it's expected that the reader won't understand it all - as long as they believe it). And if you have a normal ten-year-old, make them sound like a normal ten-year-old, not a retired librarian.

This guide - that language should be appropriate to the character and scene - takes precedence over others.

I also think having a diversity of characters is vital, not just for the reader, but for the writer. If I felt all the characters in one of my works were too similar, I'd get bored writing it (plus it would be harder to keep the details and differences clear in my head). The same as a reader. It's why we ended up with the "unlikely coupling" trope. Though as with any writing rule - it can be broken if the end result works.

It's Okay If The Reader Doesn't Know Every Word

Even if you use a word that a reader doesn't understand, what does it matter? They can look it up and learn in one go. Or they can ignore it and read on anyway - the sense is usually apparent, and that's often how we gradually learn what words mean, from context.

The way to learn new words and expand your vocabulary is to read them. If authors avoid certain words then those words will eventually die, and we end up without the finesse to make subtle distinctions. I'd rather use the dictionary by my bed than end up with an impoverished word-hoard. Words are the building blocks of communication, and communication is the foundation of civilisation.

I think my prose is fairly readable. If someone disagrees then I have no problem with that - they are probably right, my prose isn't so readable for them. Fine. People seek out writers they get on with, and avoid those they don't. It's normal. It's probably not a good idea to keep simplifying things, or your style will get diluted too.

How It Affects Our Writing

I don't mind learning new words. I love it. I keep a dictionary by the bed, and often read a page or two just for fun.

What I do mind is monotonous and repetitious prose. One of the faults of amateur writing is over-repetition of the same words. I see this when I edit for other authors sometimes. The only way to avoid that is to have a wider vocabulary.

Repetition is also a problem with the first drafts of any writer. I'm just as guilty of it as anyone else. That can be fixed easily, but rewriting is still a lot quicker if I don't need to keep checking a thesaurus.

Of course, all books include some repetition of words. But there's repetition, and there's repetition. I'm talking about repetition that draws attention to itself as lazy writing.

It's About The Audience Too

Language level and vocabulary will partly be determined by your target audience (maybe at a very broad level - e.g. school children, teenagers, professors of magical academies). You can go broader and reach more, or be more discerning, but have a smaller audience.

Don't worry too much about writing a book for everyone. It isn't possible. Swing towards over-simplified prose and you may put off readers who like to be encouraged.

Always write as best as you can, always appropriately for the story; then find the readers who like it, and don't generally worry about those who won't. They're not your audience, they're someone else's. Leave them alone.

And if it does bother you, here's a tip. If you're not sure about including a word, because you think it's the right word for the place, but worry it may seem too complex to some readers, then just make sure contextual clues make it clear what it means. Even then, you only need to do that for words that have some real significance, not those used for subtle flavour.

That's Enough Of Me

Time to open it out: am I wrong? Readers: do you like it when you learn new words, or hate it? Or is there some tipping point? Writers: do you base vocabulary and level on character, or on your target audience, or both?

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Thursday, 11 May 2017

An Interview With Chloe Hammond - Darkly Dreaming


Tonight I am talking to the author Chloe Hammond in Plumereau Square, the heart of the old town of Tours, in France's Loire Valley. It looks magical with lights strung between ancient buildings and across the Square. The central space is packed with rows of benches and tables, covered with white cotton tablecloths, jars of candles and scented jasmine. Music plays in the background, chilled-out Blues classics wafting through the gentle spring air. "Summertime ..." croons Billie, softly. Staff from the different bars around the edges of the square bustle back and forth, taking orders and delivering drinks, wearing white shirts, black trousers and the very French long aprons that come to the ankle.

It makes a nice change from West Wales.

Townspeople and tourists, students and farmers are happily seated together drinking, eating, and smoking. Arms are waved, shoulders shrugged and there are lots of Gallic “Ehs”, “Boufs” and “Biens” mixing with raucous laughter, which gets louder as the evening progresses. Chloe and I sit in a corner, lit by candle light as the shadows lengthen. She said she doesn't like bright sunlight. I'm not sure why. And now the sun is clinging to the roofs of the buildings as if resisting being dragged down, and the shadows spread a chill over everyone. But conversation continues. Some don't notice the encroaching dark. Maybe wine and brandy help.


Hi Chloe, thanks for inviting me to such a cool place. It was quite a trek from Aberystwyth, but I have my means.

My pleasure. I'd heard you liked cafes and Europe.

Very true. And you wanted to talk about your book, Darkly Dreaming. Is it a standalone, or part of a planned series?

It's a trilogy. I'm just over halfway through book 2, but book 3 is all in my head ready - I just need time and energy to get it all done!

I know the feeling. Oh, yes waiter, du vin, s'il vous plait. Merci. What's your book about, Chloe? I see you have a copy there.

It's about vampires.

Ah. And you're from Wales?

Yes, I grew up there.

You see, I know a fair few Welsh authors and readers, and there seems to be a fascination with vampires among them. Is that a general thing due to vampires' cultural resurgence globally (books and films), or is it something about Wales? I just wondered if they suited a Welsh mentality, or had shadows of Welsh legends, or if it is just chance.

Do you know, I have no idea! Maybe we are dreamers, and love a bit of escapism?

I like that. Though my suspicion was to do with slate-grey skies reminding us of eternal death. And I've just realised that by saying that, my Welsh friends will tell me off for criticising the tywydd Cymraeg.

Heh heh, good old Welsh drizzle. That inspired one character's move to France.

Welsh weather is actually no worse than Manchester's.

Don't bet on it. How's the wine?

Lovely. Though I have to admit, all wine tastes the same to me. I don't even know what colour it is unless I look at the glass. I hadn't noticed this was red. Back to your book. Vampires may be a subject matter but what genre is your book? Or what mood does it create? Vampires seem like they fit into horror, thriller, young adult, comedy, romance, wherever.

I would say I write contemporary fiction, or literary fiction, with a vampire twist. The people who seem to enjoy my book the most are people who don't usually enjoy vampire novels.

That suggests it's something other than the vampires they enjoy, such as the mood or detail. I'm just always interested in how different people take the same element - a monster, a plot, a joke - and use it in different ways.

People consistently comment on Rae & Layla's relationship. In that way it is literature, because their struggles with who they are, and retaining their humanity - these are what the novel is about, as much as the actual vampire adventure.

Hey, I think there's someone spying on us. Look, over there ... oh. They've gone. I'd swear someone was stood in the shadows.

Too much imagination, Karl.

Mmm. Okay: your interpretation of vampires. Similarities or differences from the canon. Go.

My vampires are infected with a virus that triggers DNA mutations right along the evolutionary strands, so my vampires may awaken from their transformation with a gift that you would normally associate with a frog. They are immortal in the same way lobsters are: they don't die of old age, but they can be killed by separating head and heart. They don't like garlic - too stinky for super powerful noses - but all the old legends are just put about by vampires to distract from reality. The High Council employs teams to do the 'false news'.

I could believe in the High Council.

You should.

All this stuff about vampires ... do you have any thoughts about lesser-used supernatural beings? I've seen lots of zombies, vampires and were-creatures in recent books and films. What other fascinating beings are there? Any that you might want to write about?

I have a plan for stories about a medical student haunted by his cadaver, and an angel who argues with God and gets sent to Earth as a human in punishment. I'm also just finishing a short story for a competition which is about zombies, caused by an extraterrestial life form.

I think in one of Romero's early zombie films (Night or Dawn or both) there was a hint of something from space maybe being the cause, but he never explored it - more just an idea on the radio, one of many possible explanations for the zombie uprising. Though there was a film called Lifeforce that went full "space zombie/space vampire" many years ago. I think it had lots of nudity and exploding bodies, which makes it sound more awesome than it was.

Ha ha, sounds great. I only had 5,000 words, so I could only touch the surface. I may well expand it in future though - my trusty criticals enjoyed it.

Short stories are often the ones with greatest impact. It's one of my favourite formats to read or write.

Yes. So little space for extraneous.

Talking of naked bodies and explosions, I'm not shocked by anything except for electricity, so wasn't phased by your book beginning with a bang (well, a blowjob) - in fact, I think it's always good to set the tone at the start. If the book's world isn't one of sparkles and romance then it's handy to know right away, to adjust reader expectations so they can expect a bit of grit. Is that why you began the book like that, or was there another reason?

Yes - I wrote the book, and realised the original first couple of chapters were more about the friends as humans, and could mislead people. (My poor mother - I'd forgotten to warn her about the vampires, being so bothered about her reading the rude bits, and so the vampires were a real shock and even gave her nightmares. Several people have reported nightmares.) So I added the prologue afterwards as a flash of foresight into what's to come.

Bdum'tsh! I liked the opening scene and it made me laugh, because it was unexpected, and seemed apt to resonate with the idea of vampires sucking the life out of you, and in some variants of the myth it can be a pleasurable thing.

But Suzannah, that character, is an absolute bitch - and does not improve in vampire form!

I think that's one of the pulls of extreme situations (including becoming immortal) - what it does, how it changes you, how the many new experiences and sensations change you (or don't!)

Absolutely - I've really enjoyed exploring that with my characters.

Suzannah is totally fictional, or a composite? No need to answer that.

Suzannah is a composite of several people.

The best characters are. Legally safest too.

Heh heh. Yes. But don't change the subject. I'd been warned you had a zombie obsession, and you've mentioned them a few times. Back to vampires!

One fictional monster is as good as another.

Fictional?

Okay, vampires. Do you want to live forever? Would it be good?

Hmmm. In some ways, yes. As a vampire you wouldn't have to worry about money and pensions, and all that stuff, and you'd be physically perfect forever, so then yes. There's so much to do and see in the world, even if as a vampire I'd have to see it at night to avoid being seen.

It is getting quite dark now. Not much lighting in this corner of the piazza. Anyway, I reckon it might be one of the enduring fantasies humans have always had - living forever - maybe that's one of the reasons they're so popular. Downsides?

The main one is, of course, the loss of all your loved ones. Unless you turned them?

Ethical dilemma! Would you be doing them a favour, or cursing them? Mmm, depends on what the take on vampires is. (Goodies, baddies, neutrals).

You could ask the loved ones, I suppose - email them a theoretical quiz and those who would want to could be turned. Or ask them in a cafe ...

And pretend it is "just a quiz, no real import". That makes me want to start sending weird and random quizzes to my friends and family ... Though I do worry that I'd become immortal then see the world go to shit and be stuck in it, rather than some dreamy endless Venice or something more romantic.

In terms of watching the world go to shit - you could do something about it. Just wait for book 3.

True! I could be the eternal activist.

In fact, that was a motivator for writing Darkly Dreaming. I work with vulnerable teens and part of that is having to meet some horribly abusive adults, or at least hear about them. I took great pleasure in writing Rae's hunting scene, and it's one that impacts on a lot of my readers.

And it always adds heart when fictional events come from real concerns.

What about you? Have you written about vampires?

Well, the final traditional story of They Move Below is Bleeding Sunset, Dancing Snowflakes (I felt it was appropriate to end the collection with sunset, in more than one meaning of the term - which then segues into the end of the book, about endless night). It's the nearest I've come to writing about vampires. I suspect it was subliminally inspired by One for the Road by Stephen King, since I always loved Night Shift (my first Stephen King book). Okay, change of subject: the last two books you enjoyed?

Always changing the topic ... and I'm crap at remembering titles!

I've had that. "It was about a guy ... he had a jetpack ... I think it was set in a treehouse ..."

Well, of the books I've read recently: The Wishing Game, by Patrick Redmond. I was pleasantly surprised by this book - I thought it would be a straightforward thriller, I like well-written thrillers for when I'm in work, as they're quite easy to dip in and out of on quiet nights. However, this was actually a rather sinister ghost story which was a lovely surprise. I do love a bit of magic realism. Also there's the book I've just finished - Lionel Shriver's Big Brother. Family politics come under her unflinching magnifying glass again, and although this novel didn't blow me away like We Need To Talk About Kevin, it is still a better book than most people can ever hope to write. When she describes the difference between the feeling of being herself and the shock of seeing a photo of herself I wanted to shout "Yes!", she had described it so perfectly.

Two more for my list, which grows faster than a zombie epidemic.

Or a vampire infestation.

[Then Chloe blew out the candle flame and leaned closer, speaking in a whisper only I could hear. Over her shoulder I noticed that the shadows seemed to be moving of their own accord.]

There's a party going on nearby. Wanna go? I know some people who are dying to meet you.
 
Undying, more like. I would - I love parties in France - but I told my cat I'd be home in time to make her a hot water bottle. Plus my helicopter pilot's been waiting patiently. One of the perks of being an international author.

Shapes and ghostly pale faces faded in and out of the shadows beyond the table. They seemed disappointed.

Living forever could be fun. But my cat ... I guess I'll just have to live forever through my words. I learnt my lesson from Highlander.

You can buy Chloe's book Darkly Dreaming and follow Chloe on her website or Twitter. Chloe is planning a celebratory giveaway - check her Facebook page for details.


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Monday, 8 May 2017

Dodgy Ratings

Badreads

Writers work with words (including alliteration), yet we also look at numbers a lot - sales, ROI on advertising, ratings and so on. All authors know how much pain Amazon's review system can be, with legitimate reviews being deleted, threats to the authors that Amazon will close our accounts and not telling us why, while obviously-fake reviews stay there forever (even when the review is random text put together by a bot, or the book review says "the book did not arrive"!)

Goodreads suffers a lot of this too. Pros - Goodreads don't delete reviews often. Cons - Goodreads don't delete things which are probably fake, either! A number of authors have experienced fake ratings on Goodreads recently - "reader" accounts which only seem to post 1* ratings on certain books, with no comment or review.

I've seen other authors suffer this, and recently got in touch with Goodreads about one of my books, just to see what they did with accounts that don't seem to be real, or really reviewing books. The answer is - nothing! Sigh. Best not to look at the reviews and ratings sometimes! (Also: Goodreads is owned by Amazon, but their 5* rating systems mean different things.)

Just for information, this is an email I sent Goodreads recently:

Summary: Potential abuse of the ratings system

Hi,

In the past I have encountered one (or more) people who seem to have targeted books and abused rating systems. I've seen this on Amazon and other sites, and it always has the same pattern:

- Minimal profile set up. No image, or a fake stock image, that may not even match the profile details.
- The only interaction with the site is to leave a 1* review of one of my books (or another author's) in order to bring the average score down.
- There is never a review attached, or anything to justify the score, or show that these are opinions of different people.
- The review is never a verified purchase (where these systems are used, such as Amazon) - and the name is never anyone I sent an ARC to.
- The profile is then just abandoned with that one rating left affecting overall scores.

Some time later another account is set up which follows the same pattern, though may use a different location, name, sex, and interests.

Past investigations from vendors/sites with access to activity reports have suggested they weren't real accounts used by individuals, but were spoof ones created purely with the intention of manipulating scores on another book. I was told it could be an account set up with random ratings, just to look real so it can be used for some other scam. Or even that it might be an author who writes in the same genre and wants to abuse rating systems to lower scores for books seen as competition, as possibly happened here (I really hate to imagine this is true - all the authors I know support each other). Chances are it is not a real person who has read the book in question, it is all just about rating system abuse.

I recently noted two accounts on Goodreads that seemed to match the warning criteria above. Goodreads can check the access and determine if these are real accounts or spoof accounts, and I'd be grateful if you could do that.

https://www.goodreads.com/user/show/65415187-luke-hill 
Only one rating, no review, targeting on of my books.
Presumably a false profile image.

https://www.goodreads.com/user/show/37879468-claire-ufton
Only one rating, no review, targeting on of my books.
No profile image.

I could be wrong, but preliminary evidence makes these look suspicious, so I'd appreciate it if you could investigate and take any appropriate actions. Real accounts, and real opinions, are fine. I have no problem with that. But spoof accounts created purely to abuse rating systems are another matter entirely.

Yours faithfully,
Karl Drinkwater

Goodreads' reply:

Thank you for contacting us about this, though we sincerely apologize for the delayed response.  We looked carefully at the accounts you mentioned on the admin side, but they didn't raise any of our standard red flags for illegitimacy.  It also doesn't look like these members are breaking any of our rules.  Given this, we won't be able to remove the accounts from the site, as we're only able to take action when a member has violated our Terms of Use in some way.

However, if you see any further suspicious activity from these members, please feel free to email and we'll be happy to look into the accounts again.

Sincerely,
The Goodreads Team

To which I added:

Okay, thanks for checking anyway. I would have at least thought the first account broke the rule “You agree that any User Content that you post does not and will not violate third-party rights of any kind, including without limitation any Intellectual Property Rights” – his photo is even watermarked as copyright to a photographer, and is obviously just the results of a Google image search. If he’d bought rights to the image the watermark would have been removed, so that’s infringing content.
Best wishes,
Karl
Most people can spot a fake review

I'd also reported a bot/software account to them, and am not surprised to see it is still active, despite Goodreads saying they had investigated it:

Dear Goodreads, this is possibly a bot account - the reviews posted by "Stability Test Account" https://www.goodreads.com/user/show/66566617-stability-test-account are all garbled random strings of text, for example this one says "P,9[k opp aww5'q see; ttyl8fr wgww Ed m g bx+ xxou :) t ,wwwl.p..z c1(".
I'm sure you'll agree that is not a proper review. This usually occurs when a bot is being used to create an account (random ratings and reviews, many friend requests sent out so some get accepted etc)

Oh well!

Readers: I'll just keep writing the books and being intensely grateful to everyone that takes time to rate my books on Goodreads. I don't care what the rating is as long as it is real (even better when there are a few words to show the person actually read the book!) By the way, if you read my work and have a Goodreads account, please do pop along to my profile and add a rating to any of my books that you've read - you can do it all from one screen. You don't have to write anything (unlike Amazon), though you are welcome to add comments. Thank You!

Authors: do any of you get these weird accounts dropping a score bomb then sitting their forever, inert? Any good examples of score trolling or manipulation? Ideas on why it occurs?

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Friday, 5 May 2017

Look After Yourself - Health And Sitting

This is not the recommended sitting position

We all know that sitting too much is bad for us:
This applies to any desk job. And for writers, that's most of our time.

Some people turn to standing desks as an alternative (you can read about it here and here).

This was a "standing desk" setup I made in my old workplace (when I was working for an organisation). I was the only person stood up in a huge open-plan office. But it was comfortable and fun, and I could display my trophies for being an awesome librarian. Note the use of the mouse in my left hand, to prevent a recurrence of RSI in my right.

Even without a standing desk, there's lots you can do if you are a writer. Are you dictating a scene? Are you proofing your audio book and listening to the chapters sent back by your narrator? Are you listening to MP3s of a computer voice reading out your draft chapters as part of your editing process? For all of those, and more: do it standing, or (even better) walk around slowly.

After all, standing permanently is not ideal. Standing all the time is bad. Sitting all the time is bad. It's balance we need. That's why I stood in my employer's workplace, but worked sat down at home, rather than standing all the time.

Also - make sure you get up regularly for a stretch, a walk, a glass of water, a run; take a cup of tea into the garden and smell the flowers; do a few sit-ups or press-ups before going back to your desk. It all helps. But please avoid sitting still in one position for hours every day. The damage from a sedentary lifestyle is slow and long-term. Don't let it creep up on you.

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Saturday, 29 April 2017

A Hand-written Novel


I found this folder the other day: the first draft of Turner, hand-written on an island in 2006. Saturday 25th August to Monday 4th September, to be exact, on Ynys Enlli. Story plans, maps, and my scrawled draft, mostly written by gaslight because the house I rented had no electricity. I thought I'd share this historical record before I recycle it! I love the old note on one sheet that aimed for chapters 1-4 to only display "cryptic horror", but for the chapters after that to "slowly explain".

I was worried about the only copy of Turner falling off the boat back to the mainland and sinking into the sea. Maybe that inspired They Move Below. But once I had it typed up and backed up I was able to sleep sound again.

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Thursday, 27 April 2017

World Intellectual Property Day


Today I saw an interesting post by Dan Holloway: We Need to Talk About World Intellectual Property (IP) Day. Have a read. He gives some real examples where IP affects decisions. As an ex-librarian (subject and enquiry desk) I used to come across those and others daily. As a full-time writer I also come across them daily, though often from a slightly different angle.

It's a topic I sometimes blog about or touch upon, as in these posts:

I'll add some examples to Dan's:
  • I hate the way that as writers we self-censor all the time, worrying about mentioning real world places, events and brands.
  • I hate the way that things which should have passed into public domain get their copyright extended because rich corporations can pressure law makers for exceptions and extensions.
  • I hate the way copyright on classic works of art has expired - but you end up not being able to re-use that work because a gallery or museum manages to restrict it.
  • I hate the way that there might be stories and characters in the public domain (fairy tales and so on), yet you have to be careful because companies like Disney may have used those names and stories in works they have then copyrighted and trademarked, meaning you then have to be careful how you use things that should be available to all.
  • I hate the way trademarks are allowed to use and restrict common words (and in some cases images, fonts, colours).
  • I take a photo I want to use - but maybe one of the buildings in it is protected or restricted and I am infringing in some way?
  • I record a video and it shows logos and images in the background, maybe a poster, which is copyright with reproduction forbidden, perhaps exacerbated by music playing from a nearby TV which is also copyrighted.
We easily end up with a minefield of complications that require an (expensive) legal expert to fully understand and navigate. Partly this complex scenario has built up because so many organisations keep campaigning to add yet more piecemeal restrictions, and no-one has an overall view. 

One of the reasons I can't join some organisations (writing or licensing) is because they campaign for even more and tighter copyright laws - which is the opposite of what I want. I can't register with a licensing society (even if I wanted to) because I allow people to do more with my work than their licence would if I signed up, and I don't want to restrict people.

For all these reasons, and more, I would support simpler, clearer, and more open intellectual property laws, with far more cases where things are unequivocally okay. And that's speaking as an author.

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Tuesday, 18 April 2017

Amazon's Confusing Automated Communications

Image CC0 via Pixabay

Like it or not, writers are affected by Amazon. Amazon will sell our books. Reviews on Amazon can encourage people to buy our books. So it is quite scary when an author receives an email from Amazon that threatens severe penalties (such as not being able to sell books) - without even specifying what it is the author has done to receive the warning, or offering any appeal. I experienced this recently, and it was a stressful situation. It is the equivalent of police warning you that "If you, or someone you know, continues to do something which we won't specify, then you'll be locked up, and you can't appeal against our decision or question what you're supposed to have done or what evidence we think we have." Then add to that the fact that you haven't done anything, but seem to be targeted for an act someone else (unknown to you) has done. Bizarre, isn't it? But when organisations like Amazon get so big they start to rely on software algorithms to flag things up - especially when that software is flawed, or creates false positives - things get worrying.

This is the shocking email I woke up to a couple of weeks ago:
From: review-seller-appeals@amazon.co.uk
Sent: 05 April 2017 04:08
Subject: Policy Warning

Hello,

We have determined that your account is related to accounts that have written Amazon customer reviews for products that you have a financial interest in. This may include products that you or your competitors sell. Family members or close friends of a seller on Amazon may not write reviews for the seller’s items or negative reviews for items sold by that seller’s competitors. Sellers are not allowed to manipulate ratings, feedback, or customer reviews.

If this problem continues, we may not allow you to sell on Amazon.co.uk.

To learn more about this policy, search for "Prohibited Seller Activities and Actions" in Seller Central Help.

Sincerely,

Seller Performance Team
Amazon Services
I have no idea what it refers to, and still don't - Amazon refused to reply to any of my follow up emails. All I know is that it must be a false positive. I am not an Amazon Seller, and am unable to even login and see any contents in Seller Central Help - which is one of the huge warning flags that Amazon is incorrectly sending out automated warnings.

In case it is of interest, this is the reply I sent to Amazon nearly two weeks ago. As stated, I didn't get a reply, or even acknowledgement of their error. All that stands is the threat to my livelihood if their software creates another false positive. I write horror, but this is scarier than anything in my books. Has anyone else received a message like this?
From: Karl Drinkwater
Sent: 05 April 2017 10:14
To: review-seller-appeals@amazon.co.uk
Cc: Jeff Bezos
Subject: RE: Policy Warning

Dear Amazon,

Please can you give me some more information.

The only products I "have a financial interest in" are my books. But my family do not write reviews. I only have two friends on Facebook, and they don't read my work. I have many followers on Facebook and Twitter and Goodreads, but they are fans of my work, not "close friends". I do not leave negative reviews for other authors - if I don't like a book, I just don't mention it. I do not write reviews for the books of close friends.

Therefore, please can you tell me _something_ about the review or user this relates to. Being told that Amazon will close your account if you do something a second time, without defining what that thing is or giving any indication of it (even though you obviously have a particular time/circumstance/review/user in mind) is unhelpful. Further, I can only assume this message has come about as a misinterpretation of something, such as a person wrote a review of one of my books, became a fan, and now follows me on Twitter.

These Policy Warning messages should include:

1. What the person is being accused of (specifically), and
2. A chance to point out if the accusation is incorrect (since the warning flag has probably generated by an algorithm rather than a person).

To send such dire warnings without the recipient having any way of avoiding further warnings or punishments (such as account closure) is stressful and unhelpful.

I do not, and never would, "manipulate ratings, feedback, or customer reviews": and I disagree with those that do. I support Amazon fully in trying to fight against that kind of unethical behaviour. But obviously you are also flagging up false positives, and there needs to be information and an appeal process for these cases. Otherwise your algorithms cannot improve, bugs will not be spotted, and genuinely innocent authors - the ones that you should be supporting - will be caught up in these false presumptions.

Further - your email says "To learn more about this policy, search for Prohibited Seller Activities and Actions in Seller Central Help". There is not even a URL included. I Googled that and found this address https://sellercentral.amazon.com/ - a site I have never seen before - but the site won't let me log in, saying "Welcome. You don't have access yet." Obviously something has gone wrong with your system if you are directing users to policies they cannot view, on systems they do not use. And again, the lack of information and an appeal opportunity makes this even more stressful and confusing.

I hope this is a misunderstanding or bug, and that I can help you get to the bottom of it before it causes problems for other users.

Yours faithfully,

Karl Drinkwater

Update: 19th April 2017

Just before I wrote the post above, I had copied my email to Amazon once more. Well, I did get a new reply last night. This.
-----Original Message-----
From: review-seller-appeals@amazon.co.uk
Sent: 18 April 2017 17:46
Subject: RE: Policy Warning

Hello,

Thank you for taking the time to contact us in response to the policy warning.

Our investigations have shown that your account is related to the accounts of customers who have reviewed your book. Our policies state that family members or close friends of authors on Amazon may not write reviews for that author’s book.

We want to call your attention to this policy because violations may result in the removal of your Amazon.com KDP selling privileges.

To learn more about this policy, please see our Customer Review Guidelines Page for Authors (https://www.amazon.com/gp/community-help/customer-review-guidelines-faqs-from-authors).

We cannot share any further information about this warning and we may not reply to further emails about this issue.
I was flummoxed. I have no problem with their policy. If someone who knows the author writes a review, fine, delete it. But it's me being threatened with punitive measures and pointed to policies I can't access, not the unknown person who wrote a review. And, due to the lack of information, I'm still betting this is a false positive, that they are misinterpreting something as a "related account" e.g. I used to send ARC - Advance Review Copies - to bloggers via Amazon; maybe Amazon then takes that to represent a "related account", assuming it was a gift and therefore the person was a friend? Someone who follows me on Twitter? A “Friend” fan on Goodreads? Did some author I'd reviewed in the past go on to read and review one of my books? Who knows. Amazon make it impossible to do anything but surmise.

I was quite stressed by this, and replied.
-----Original Message-----
From: Karl Drinkwater
Sent: 18 April 2017 21:09
To: review-seller-appeals+A31C2CR2VCF8EE@amazon.co.uk
Subject: RE: Policy Warning

Thank you, but this is so bizarre.

I don't know which book, or what person, or when this applies to. There seem to be only two options.

1. Someone who knows or follows me wrote a review. I have no idea who, and I have no control over anyone writing reviews, or any ability to stop them, yet I could have my account closed for something I have no control over.

2. Amazon has mistakenly created a false positive, and since I am not given any information to help Amazon check that, I could have my account closed for something that hasn't happened.

Whichever is true, I am given no information as to what happened, and am not allowed to appeal against it anyway.

Does that not strike you as incredibly unfair?

"We cannot share any further information about this warning and we may not reply to further emails about this issue."

As a literary editor, I have to point out that sentence is incorrect. Amazon could do both of those things. It is Amazon's choice not to provide any useful information that could help to identify a false positive, or to improve your processes.

This is incredibly depressing and scary. I cannot tell you how stressed I feel right now having been accused of something I am completely unaware of. I really am knocked for six by the unfairness of it.

Karl Drinkwater
I have no control over this. No author does. This is what happens when we become connected to large organisations that minimise their accountability via their guidelines and terms and conditions/EULAs. You have no say, no matter how bizarre or unfair the issue. Pretty scary stuff. It's probably why many people keep quiet about these cases, for fear of the organisation lashing out for you having the temerity to ask what you are accused of. All authors who publish to Amazon can be held hostage in this way. Amazon customers are generally our largest market. So, there's nothing we can do. Just accept that our livelihoods, and that of our family, can be taken away for infractions we have no control over, and no way of stopping.

To end on a more positive note, I've been discussing this with fellow authors, and some of them managed to reassure me.

"Wow. That's getting crazy. I'm not saying it doesn't make sense that they don't want bogus reviews. But how do you prevent someone you may know from reviewing your book?"

"A few of my friends posted reviews when I first started and I got the same threatening email and vague responses. Amazon is a little over the top sometimes."

"Make sure your Facebook email and Amazon email are separate. Amazon and Kobo are known to delete reviews from "friends" on Facebook, whether they are real friends or not, whether they live across the world to somewhere you've never been. Apparently you aren't allowed to socialize with your readers. Kobo email and Facebook email as well.  I've had a few of mine deleted of an author who lives in the UK whom I've never met, but I love his books."

"I had my 5 year old KDP account terminated 2 months ago after my best month. So did 4 others in the same group I was in. Not much of an explanation given."

"It hasn't happened to me, but I've heard of it happening to others. I've also heard of authors being dropped from KDP Select for sudden increases in page reads. The way they handle these things is less than encouraging."

"I've heard of similar letters: they're form letters sent out when Amazon thinks they've detected unusual activity, and as you surmised, it's probably a false positive. It's also a hollow threat. I don't know of any author who's been permanently banned from selling on Amazon, though I've heard of two who were permanently banned from leaving reviews. (In both cases, Amazon's actions were harsh, but justified — there were shenanigans by the authors.) And in the cases where authors have been banned due to other issues, like KU anomalies, they've been restored on appeal (e.g., Pauline Creeden). I wouldn't lose any sleep over it."


So I'm going to hope this never recurs and I can just get on with writing and selling fantastic books.

Update: 20th April 2017

I did get a final reply. Unfortunately, despite escalation, it just reiterates what has already been said, something I have found many times with Amazon. There are no answers to any of my questions. I am still in a position that I had no control over. I'll include the email anyway, for completeness.
From: Amazon.co.uk [mailto:review-seller-appeals@amazon.co.uk]
Sent: 20 April 2017 16:13
Subject: **JB Escalation**CTC 24465749586 CID501075982

Message From Customer Service

Hello Karl,

Jeff Bezos received your email and requested that I research this issue and respond on his behalf.

Our investigations have shown that your account is related to the accounts of customers who have reviewed your book. Our policies state that family members or close friends of authors on Amazon may not write reviews for that author’s book.

Due to the proprietary nature of our business, we do not provide detailed information on how we determine that accounts are related.

We want to call your attention to this policy because violations may result in the removal of your Amazon.com KDP selling privileges.

To learn more about this policy, please see our Customer Review Guidelines Page for Authors (https://www.amazon.com/gp/community-help/customer-review-guidelines-faqs-from-authors).

We cannot share any further information about this warning and we may not reply to further emails about this issue.

Warmest regards,

Your feedback is helping us build Earth's Most Customer-Centric Company.

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Tuesday, 11 April 2017

Wales Book Of The Year In Review


Literature Wales is currently looking into how to run its publicly-funded Wales Book Of The Year award. The review is being outsourced to a PR/marketing firm called Mela (cost unknown), and their review is scheduled to be completed by the end of April.

In case the topic seems familiar, I have discussed this prize in the past. See these posts for background:
In summary: this prize used to be open to all books published in Wales or by Welsh authors (which you'd expect from the name), but things changed in 2013. For the 2014, 2015 and 2016 awards, Literature Wales discriminated against independent authors and changed their eligibility criteria, so a book could only be entered if the author transferred their rights to a trade publisher. It's not clear where this prejudice came from - presumably some person or group within the organisation - but it seemed rather dishonest to continue to call the prize Wales Book of the Year when it arbitrarily excluded many works that might have actually been the best Book of the Year. It's a disservice to authors and to those following the prize, as well as having other deleterious effects; for example discrimination just reinforces prejudices ("oh, only trade-published books win, so only trade-published books are good quality"). It would have been more honest to call it Wales Trade-Published Book of the Year.

It's a shame the controversy about this prize is still unresolved, as it shadows many of the good things about Literature Wales, and the many staff at (and connected to) the organisation who do good work, who are helpful and friendly, and who I've been happy to share a pint with. Along the way I have attended some of their excellent courses, and promoted them to other writers. I want it to be clear that today I'm only grumbling about this one issue of discrimination.*

Photo: Some famous authors and some soon-to-be-famous authors.
Plus some whingy bloke with a funny surname.
And as if on cue:

[*Though Literature Wales are the only funding source for writers in Wales and they turned down my application that was backed up by statistical and qualitative evidence when I was in desperate need of financial support, and I worried that it was because I mentioned being published in various places, including independent - but hey, shut up Karl! I've had cake and chocolate since then! And it's past, and I'm still alive as Pearl Jam sang, and I try to be thankful for all the good things rather than focussing on the worst.]

So! What shall I add that wasn't in the posts I've already linked to above? In no particular order:
  • I love this: the Romantic Novelists' Association has many respected prizes. Some of my favourite author friends have been honoured on their lists. Well, for the first time in the awards’ history, the shortlists included both traditionally and independently published authors! This year Kate Johnson was named winner of the first Paranormal or Speculative Romantic Novel Award for Max Seventeen: and Kate was also the first self-published author in the award’s 57 year history to win one of the prestigious RoNAs. That is amazing.
  • There’s a brand new Arnold Bennett Prize which specifically states that all authors are welcome, however published.
  • Another exciting prize that is open to all authors, regardless of how their books are published, is The Jhalak Prize
  • The £40,000 Folio Prize has relaunched, not only taking self-published titles, but also opening up to non-fiction as well as fiction.
  • Do non-discriminatory prizes get too many entries? No. Can it be managed? Of course. An insider told me it's really not hard to do - the Folio prize starts with a form submission about the book and goes from there. My contact said some prize bodies are initially terrified of the perceived extra work involved, but the feedback she had from another really huge prize (that is also open to independent authors) - the Young Writer of the Year Award - was that despite massive publicity they struggled to get any indies to enter.
  • Also: if an organisation was worried about the number of entries, they can implement quality controls – this is far better than arbitrary exclusions. Apply the same criteria to all books, trade-published or independent. Personally I'd exclude books with more than one typo or error (grammatical, printing, formatting): that would get the list down pretty quickly, without prejudice. But they could be more lenient than me and still have a manageable list with poor-quality works excluded.
  • What a prize should NOT do (if it wants to be open) is charge fees to enter. Costs that can be swallowed with no problem by a large publishing house such as the Big Five (Hachette, Macmillan, Penguin Random House, HarperCollins, Simon & Schuster) would be impossible for an independent author or small publishing house. This is why independent authors could not win the Costa Book Awards (the prize requires a £5,000 fee from publishers if a book is to be shortlisted), or be part of the Richard & Judy Bookclub ("publishers have to discount their books heavily – typically by around 65 per cent – to get them into the front of book stores, and are also required to contribute towards steep marketing costs").
  • If Literature Wales remove the unfair discrimination, I promise to promote their open prize on this website.
  • Someone recently described Gladstone’s Library to me as “stuck in the 1950s” because its smallprint was so old-fashioned and included prejudice against independent and hybrid writers ("We do not accept self-published authors of any kind. No correspondence can be entered into."). I don’t want Literature Wales to get permanently tarred with the same brush, I want my national literature organisation to be at the forefront of modern culture, relevant, where it belongs to be.
  • My article linked to above, "A World Of Writers And Readers: Understanding Modern Publishing" makes it clear, but independent publishing is not vanity publishing. Vanity publishing is generally paying a third party an inflated sum for a poor service, all smoke and mirrors trading off the lure of being able to say "Wow! I'm published!" before realising that it isn't being published at all. It is basically paying for a printer. Maybe with unethical rights grabs in the process. Self-publishing means being in charge of it all yourself. This encompasses the range from unprofessional (no quality control, amateur, perhaps for personal fulfillment - which is great but which won't trouble national prizes), to professional independent publishers. It's the range of quality and diversity that confuses things, especially for those who only know about traditional publishing. At the professional end of independent publishing books go through all the same processes that they would at any publishing house (and sometimes more), but with the difference that the author chooses who to hire and use for each job (beta readers, literary editors, copyeditors, proofreaders, interior designers, cover designers, distributors etc etc), and the author has the final say on blurb, marketing, cover etc. The author foots the bill for all those services (usually £1-3,000) but retains all ownership and copyright and can publish in any formats, languages and territories they wish.
  • The Arts Council For Wales (ACW) distribute public money set aside to support literature. They pass it all on to Literature Wales, making Literature Wales the only source of funding for writers in Wales. Literature Wales has annual bursaries for developing new works, but does not set aside any money for a hardship fund (as some other organisations do). So the only option is the once-a-year bursary application, even if it is an immediate and desperate need. There is no flexibility in this. The Arts Council For Wales could stipulate that some is reserved for a hardship fund, but they choose not to have any such guidelines. (It is similar to how ACW treat the Wales Book of the Year - totally hands-off - and why, when I first asked them why they were funding a prize that excluded Welsh writers, and not stipulating that Literature Wales should consider all Wales-connected books, ACW had no interest at all). It was no surprise then when I recently discovered that The Arts Council For Wales invite comment on their Facebook page but delete/hide any questions they don't want to answer (with no explanation or response). They do the same with Tweets, so obviously miss the “social” bit of social media, and think it is just a one-way system to do self promotion. It's a shame, because how can an organisation improve if it doesn't listen to those it represents? Though ACW does have a reputation for being a quite old-fashioned and small-c conservative institution. Sorry, another aside while I'm talking about official organisations connected with writing. I get distracted easily.
  • 5 Famous Books That Were Originally Self-Published
  • I just found this excellent piece by Joanna Penn: Am I Good Enough? The Validation Of Awards For Writers
  • And this by Roz Morris: A plea for reviewers – can we open up a dialogue about self-published books? 
I'm going to stop. That is some first class waffling and haranguing, and a lot to take in. At the end of the day we will hopefully see fairness as things become more open and inclusive again, for the benefit of all authors and readers, who are the two central pillars without which all of publishing collapses. I try to be positive, and in this world that's sometimes hard, but By The Power Of Greyskull everyone working for good can continue to shape things to create a fairer and more compassionate world. And I'm not even talking about books any more! Peace and love!

(And if my national prize doesn't open up then dammit, I'm moving to Scotland.)

Update 29th April 2017

I'm not sure if the consultants, Mela, received or used all the evidence I'd provided. I had also offered to answer questions on any of the issues raised, but wasn't taken up on the offer. I did get a noncommittal reply after I'd contacted them a number of times, but was none the wiser about whether they'd considered or used my evidence.

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